Knowledge on the Nordics

The Nordic Model: Heaven or hell? – podcast number I

March 30, 2020 Season 1 Episode 1
Knowledge on the Nordics
The Nordic Model: Heaven or hell? – podcast number I
Show Notes Transcript

This podcast introduces the concept of the Nordic Model and gives examples of how it is perceived as 'good' and 'bad' by differing groups. The three participating researchers discuss, amongst other things, that there are many different Nordic Models and the idea of the Nordic Model has changed over time and geography. Could the essence of the Nordic Model in fact be its flexibility, or ‘chameleon-like’ quality, as one of the participants puts it? The three researchers are Carl Marklund, Byron Rom-Jensen and Andreas Mørkved Hellenes and are involved in the research project 'Nordic model(s) in the global circulation of ideas'. The presenter is editor of, Nicola Witcombe. It is the first of two podcasts about the Nordic Model and was recorded at the Institute for Contemporary History at Södertörn University, Sweden in October 2019.

Find this podcast on YouTube for subtitles, or more information on the Nordic Model on

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Nicola Witcombe: Welcome to this podcast. is a research dissemination website based at Aarhus university in Denmark  and publishes material by researchers on many  different aspects of the Nordic countries  within the social sciences and humanities. is part of the university hub  Reimagining Norden in an Evolving World, ReNEW. My name is Nicola Witcombe and  I am the editor of the website. This podcast series is based on me  catching up with specialists and experts  at different university events and discussing  particular topics of the day with them. This podcast is about The Nordic Model and  is the first of two about the subject. It was  recorded at the Institute for Contemporary  History at Södertörn University in Sweden  following an academic workshop on democracy  in the Nordic countries in October 2019.  I am currently at Södertörn University near  Stockholm in Sweden with three very tired academics to discuss the Nordic Model. Thank you very much for being here 

Others: Thank you  

Nicola Witcombe: Andreas would you like to introduce yourself?

Andreas Mørkved Hellenes: Yes sure, thank you Nicola: My name is Andreas Mørkved Hellenes. I am a  Norwegian currently living in Denmark where i am a post-doc on the research project 'Nordic Models in the Global Circulation of Ideas'

Carl Marklund: My name is Carl Marklund, I am a Swedish person  living and working in Sweden and I am also a  member of said project and I am a researcher here at the Institute for Contemporary  History where we are currently recording

Byron Rom-Jensen: And I am Byron Rom-Jensen, also a postdoctoral researcher on the same project. I am an American living in Denmark, happy to be there.

Nicola Witcombe: And how long have you lived in Denmark for?

Byron Rom-Jensen: Seven years 

Nicola Witcombe: Great, thank you very much. Well, we're here to talk about the Nordic Model and the general view is that the Nordic Model is a way of talking about the five Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden and how they're run, with respect  to their mixed economies, their welfare states,  providing good social benefits paid for by high  taxes. They are democratic and consensus seeking. But, if we could start Andreas, if it is possible  to say, could you say a little bit about when the term 'the Nordic Model' first came about? 

Andreas Mørkved Hellenes: Yes, absolutely because it's true as you say  Nicola, that the concept is often used in this  relatively general way to describe these  societies but it's also possible to study it, at least interesting for us as historians  as a specific concept and then try to look at when it first appeared and how it's been used by different people in history.  So, in my own research the first usages of the term Nordic Model can be traced back to Nordic social democrats  in the early 1980s. When they started developing new political answers to what was conceived to be threats by the rise of environmentalism, on the one hand, and the electoral success of conservative parties on the other hand. So, in need of new answers, in need of new solutions to tackle challenges,  Nordic social democrats started talking about something  they called a Nordic Model. A program for a, what you can say, sort of revamped social democracy.

Nicola Witcombe: Thank you, Andreas. Carl, is it possible to talk about one Nordic Model, or could you tell us a bit about whether we should use singular or plural when talking about the Nordic Model?

Carl Marklund: That's a very good question. I think that to some extent, one can talk about a Nordic Model in singular Because of the simple fact that, if compared to other societies, there is, or has been at least, enough of  similarity between the Nordic countries, when it comes to particular social solutions of various  kinds and also political culture and so forth. So, in that sense, it is warranted to talk about 'a'  Nordic Model with distinguishing features that differentiate this region, in those  aspects, from other parts of the world. But, at the same time, when we do this in detail analysis, when we go about this as social scientists, of course, we will notice that it's a model  with five exceptions, as the saying goes.

Nicola Witcombe: Okay, thank you. So there's the Danish  model, the Finnish model, the Swedish model.There can be lots of different  interpretations to it? 

Carl Marklund: Yes. 

Nicola Witcombe: Okay. So the Nordic Model or models  has been portrayed in a negative light in some arenas and a positive light in other arenas. If we could just look at some examples of  how it's been portrayed in a positive  light, Byron, have you got some examples? 

Byron Rom-Jensen: Oh, I think there are a lot of examples out there. There's a certainly a tendency, I think, to treat  a Nordic Model as a utopia, or a near utopia. It can become this inspiration that people are trying to copy, or  trying to at least demonstrate their closeness to. You need to look no further than the United States; in the United States, this Nordic example have had a long background of being an inspiration, especially on the left. If you read articles about especially Sweden today, you hear this reference to Marquis Childs,  it's always 'Marquise Childs', 'Sweden  the middle way'. Charles was a journalist in the 1930s and in 1936, he writes a book called 'Sweden  the Middle Way', which talks about Sweden as a   and to a lesser extent the entire of  the Scandinavian countries as this 'path' between  communism and its totalitizing tendencies and capitalism and its much more exploitive tendencies. It has a big reception in the U.S., it's read by Franklin Roosevelt, it leads to  a couple of commissions being sent to  the Scandinavian countries to investigate what was  happening there. Even after the initial  focus of Childs, which was on cooperatives phase  it remains this idea of a middle way that the  United States can get to. It's a more humane  path for the United States and that becomes  applied to the rest of the Nordic countries. Again, that can still be seen today; I mean,  Bernie Sanders in 2016, Bernie Sanders in 2019, where we are right now, continues to bring up  this more humane Nordic way. This model for  progressive politics, even as what that actually  means changes 2016 Bernie Sanders is discussing  health policies and a universal  health system. Now, he's looking at Finland  and the Nordic Model in Finland to discuss  child care policies. But the consistency is  this idea that the Nordic countries can have  solutions for fixing other countries' problems. 

Andreas Mørkved Hellenes: It should be said, and that's one of the things  we are interested in, in this research project on the global circulations to study some of the  similarities, but also some of the differences between how these models are being used in  different countries and to take an example from  France than opposing or contrary to the U.S. other groups not necessarily on the political  left, but rather center-right have used references  to Scandinavia and this is a thread going back to  the work period as well, they've used this  reference in attacks on French trade unionism  and on the french left. Macron, for instance,  is a good example of frequently  referring to Scandinavia to flick security  or indeed the Nordic or Scandinavian model in his sort of visions for a more  reformist France, recently discussed in relation with his his public cuts policies.

Nicola Witcombe: And that was in relation to public cuts in public  services and so on, so it was more of a neoliberal movement. Okay, thanks very much. So that's some of the examples of a positive light,  what about the negative light  because they have also been  very rich, particularly in the last 10 years?

Carl Marklund: Yeah, well, I think it's important to keep in mind  that when we're looking at the usages of the  concepts such as Nordic Model and Swedish Model  and so forth in international context, we are also dealing with a duality in a sense. Of course, as Byron explained, this is kind of the proverbial middle way this is operating between two different  opposite poles and so forth, so naturally it is something that will attract criticism from both these groups, who represent either, shall we say, the real left or the real right and both these groups  will, at different stages in time and at different  points of debate, be critical then of the  notion of a middle way, even as embodied in  the concept of the Swedish or Nordic Model. And  it's interesting to note that, starting from the mid 1970s and onwards, you have  a growing kind of equalisation of Swedish society  becoming equal in international debates with  the concept of the Swedish Model, so that as if  the totality of Swedish society actually is  characterised as a model, which is of course  a rather radical reinterpretation of what  this concept really means. But then you end  up in a situation where it's easy for various  critics on the right, for example, to say  the Swedish Model of socialism, for example, even  though, in academic discussions and most of  the political usages, it's not the question really  about like a model of socialism. It's a model of  actually combining elements. Still, wage earner  funds and economic democracy and things like that are of course moving in a radical direction but not  necessarily meaning transforming the society into a socialist country, but that's how it's being  used predominantly by right-wing observers    in Western Europe and in the U.S., above all. I  should also add that this is a situation, which takes on a specific context in the  Swedish situation where Swedish observers are  using the concept of the Swedish model to  describe everything that's wrong with Sweden. So, the idea that this is a byword for criticism  of, not necessarily the bad welfare state, but  maybe big welfare state, or shortcomings in the  welfare state which are then being blamed upon the  architects of the welfare states, so basically the  Swedish social democrats. There, this concept that Andreas just explained used as a mobilising and kind of rejuvenating concept all of a sudden becomes something, which can be used for criticism, so to speak, and then, a third aspect is of course this notion that there is a criticism against the concept of the Swedish Model because it implies some sort of exemplarity  that "Okay, so you guys have a model, then surely  you want to export it to others. Well, does it work  so well at your own home turf?" So, you then become a victim of what i would call  a utopian trap. So, the idea that "Oh well, Sweden is a utopia well when you go and visit it, you see certainly that there are elements of social problems there,okay, so the story is not true." Now, that has very little to do with reality. This is image politics, if you will. 

Nicola Witcombe: Yes, and it also emphasises that the model is flexible and can be interpreted in many different ways, whereas a lot of people assume that when you talk about a model, then it's fixed over time and geography

Carl Marklund: Precisely 

Byron Rom-Jensen: If i may jump in here, I just think it's important to take what Carl said and the criticism that you find within the nordic countries within, for example, Sweden oftentimes gets extrapolated  outside of the country, so if you talk to, for example, a U.S. conservative, someone on the republican side, they will often times use any sort  of self-criticism or any sort of self doubt as  explanations of exactly that lack of ex-simplicity.  The idea that, for the liberals, this is actually  not a utopia. So, we have ideas of  a 'false' model or the utopian trap originating  in the Nordic countries and then moving outside  there. So, moving outside through links,  through contacts, but also through the internet. C: I agree fully, and i think that also  

Carl Marklund: there is a good example of that: one of the most  vocal and widespread criticisms against  Sweden as being a kind of embodying, soft totalitarian state was pinned in 1972 by Roland Huntford, the British South  African journalist residing in Sweden, who   made an in-depth account of the ills of Sweden  at that point. He was not particularly concerned with the concept of the  Swedish model, but he was definitely kind of  tying into this type of criticism and one of the  main source materials, which is very evident is actually a Swedish social psychologist's report  on problems that need to be fixed in Sweden by the welfare state. Then, he used that report as kind of evidence for acknowledging  social ills. I think that illustrates  precisely the point you just made and i think that  there's also another aspect; we talked about  the vagueness of the concept to some extent, as a result of being a flexible pragmatic  middle way between various extremes. Well, when you try to philosophise what  characterises this pragmatic middle way, you will rather soon end up talking about a model  when you in reality are talking about the method   and I think this is a good point to actually state at this point 

Nicola Witcombe: And by method you mean a way of governments basically being flexible  depending on the circumstances of the day and so on and so forth C: Precisely, and an attempt at testing

Carl Marklund: various innovative solutions to social problems has to show up based very much upon an idea that if we have advanced forms of  knowledge retrieval and interpreting social problems, we will be better positioned to solve said social problems. Now, that can be criticised by  those who are liberals, for example, who think that  the state will then get involved  in too many things and start to control  people's individual lives and that's not  the business of the state. That should be to individuals themselves to decide how they want to live. Alternatively, from the radical left, who would basically say "Well, the welfare state as it is formulated in this notion of a Nordic or  Swedish model is actually a defense of capitalism,  it's actually saving capitalism from itself",  which actually was one of the points that Marquis  Childs made in the 1930s: that this is actually  rather a way of making capitalism work,  capitalism with a human face, if you will.

Nicola Witcombe: Okay thanks, so we've discussed the Nordic Model specifically, but what about other countries, they have other models. The Nordic Model is not necessarily unique or exceptional, it can be compared to the UK or Japan  that also have mixed economies and so on. There are a lot of other models, so what's the point  in talking about the Nordic Model specifically?

Carl Marklund: To whom is this question? *everybody laughs*

Nicola Witcombe:Who dares?

Carl Marklund: Okay, I would like to  just say a few words on that topic. I think that one issue here is actually size. The fact that we are dealing with five relatively small countries, individually, they are small. And if you compare them to influential other countries   in the world, by comparison, these societies have been very small. So for example, there is really no need conceptually to attach the concept of a model to the British influence, when it comes to parliamentary systems for example   I mean, you have the whole colonial experience which means  that very many countries are following British  models but there's really no need to talk about  this phenomenon in terms of models, so to speak,  it's quite obvious what's going on. Another aspect is, of course, i mean we are all familiar with the American way or Soviet communism. Well, why would you call that the American Model, or anything else than Soviet communists. It's kind of a rather self-evident phenomenon, however, here we're dealing with an inside and outside marketing enterprise by attaching the  concept of the model to specific aspects or to  the totality of either of these Nordic countries,  you add something, you add rhetorically an aspect of exemplarity that we can learn from these countries experiences  and so forth, or alternatively, they have answers  to some of the challenges that are confronting  the world, for example. While that is somehow obvious when it comes to bigger countries, there is anyway an interest in those countries and  what they're doing. that said, there has also of course been, i mean, if you look at it conceptually, you will see a lot of American Model and Chinese model and Japanese Model, etc. And in our project, we are going to try to find ways in which we can track the relative importance of these models because I think, or we think, that there is  an element of overestimating, to some extent, the impact and significance of Scandinavian models  as a result of precisely this kind  of conceptual usage, rather than   that they have actually been used in that way N: Thank you, so it's a big marketing scheme  


Carl Marklund: Not entirely, but it's also an attempt to get to  grips with something which is actually a rather slightly paradoxical situation

Nicola Witcombe: Yes, absolutely  

Carl Marklund: Yeah, when you start to look at  the social facts and the economical facts of these societies, you will rather quickly understand and see that certain things that according to theory wouldn't really work does seem to work to some extent, so there is a combination of a relative level of social security  and a relative level of economic stable growth and  technological innovation and things like that. One shouldn't overstate that argument, but this is  at least what used to make the Nordics interesting. That they were combining these opposites, so to speak, and these opposites were rather regarded as  standard fare in much of social science  and economic thinking. It's also interesting that there is currently, since a couple of years back, a kind of a fight over who is actually responsible for the relative success of the Nordic  countries and that then immediately fits into  the debate on what is actually characterising  the Nordic Model.  Is it actually simply a very good business climate? Is it simply being located in a safe corner of the world, relatively speaking? Is it a question about having plenty of natural resources and a small population, or is it some sort of cultural explanation contra then explanations, which pinpoint the role of labour market  relations, strong labor unions, strong labour movements and so forth and consistent progressive politics. these are kind of divergent explanations.

Byron Rom-Jensen: And I think you can just hear in what Carl is talking about there, how much flexibility, how much  room for interpretation there is in this idea of  a Nordic Model that, perhaps because it is a method  and maybe less of a model, then it can be  constructed in these different  realms and lights. Whereas, if you talk about a U.S. democratic model, for example, it tends to be very very specific in terms of the relationship of different units of government with each other, the relationship of corporations with political processes with funding politicians. A Japanese model, as far as you usually hear it, tends to be about economic policy and about economic structuring, workplace behaviour 

C: Toyota  

Byron Rom-Jensen: Toyota, exactly. So, the one perhaps element of exceptionality within the Nordic Model is just that flexibility. That it almost has a chameleon-like status and blends in with whatever it's being compared against.

Nicola Witcombe: Okay, and I think that's a good place to leave the podcast. Thank you very much, all three of you, Andreas, Byron and Carl. You have been listening to the first podcast in a series and it has been about the different political and cultural aspects of the Nordic societies, since  the 1980s and even before then and they have been labeled 'a model' or 'models' lending diverse and often  contradictory characteristics to something that  is seemingly whole and unique, the Nordic Model. I would also like to thank our funders, the  Independent Research Fund Denmark and NordForsk. Thanks also go to our very own research hub,  Reimagining Norden in an Evolving World (ReNEW) and if you would like to know more about the Nordics, take a look at the website