"Good Is He Who Tastes Good"


An emptiness permeates our cities, smaller towns and movies along the roads. It did not use to be there. When it began to emerge, it went undetected for some time, suppressed beneath a kind of dizzy tipsiness that spread across the country and was everywhere and which perhaps transformed the very fundamentals of this country. That is why I dread those houses, that sit on the outskirts of any medium-sized town, and where constructed in a period of weeks early in the decade. Not much greenery surround them yet. The wooden porches overlook barren hills; passers-by may take them for small odd outdoor stages or just-laid down open-air dance floors. The houses were somehow built at the last minute; now the evening news light up the rooms each night as if an uncertain future - will it be about interest rate levels again? - attempts to contact its residents.

The middle-class stands there, confused. As if nothing, really, has made a difference. Halfway through the evening jog, a man or a woman stops on a hill. When the heavy breathing slowly subsides the tepid May evening filters through consciousness and tells of all that is missing. Humans, clad in brand-new track suits, but on the verge of tears, can look incredibly forlorn when one does not see them on televised sport shows. The Swedish middle-class is no longer venerable and honest but narrow-mindedly bourgeois and class-conscious, in the way that still exists in France or Great Britain. It is, if the expression permits, progressive in its soul, forward-looking, equal. And that is exactly why it becomes so lost when society no longer moves toward the future. What thoughts do the minds of these sweaty people harbor when they wander home with their heads turned down after an hypnotic half-an-hour amidst the trees' rustle.

And then, the working class in some other, smaller town, or perhaps the same; a person, somewhat over thirty who works in an auto plant, draws his younger brother away from the outdoor party into the summer dusk. The younger brother has trekked on a different path, and is, in the eyes of his older brother, something of an intellectual. While making a sweeping gesture over his neighborhood, he speaks: I am not like everyone else here. Then he wails into the night, toward the other houses. These are the kinds of scenes - simultaneously protest and primal scream - that arise when even a dozen new television channels fail to funnel the human need for change. He sees now that the kid has left his damn mountain bike outside the fence again. Still, he lifts it almost gently and carries it into the yard, as if he had come upon a wounded animal. The younger brother can not come up with anything intelligible to say. Swedish working class below or around thirty - some of which sank so deeply into its narrow-minded maleness that it cast its votes on New Democracy. It was robbed of the vitality that could have thrived if only other parts of the Swedish working class, female nursing aides and nurses in the public sector, for example, had been able to really break through. Something has happened, or, rather: something did not happen, but what?

In the mid-1970s, Swedish society turns around completely. It happens during sleep, however, so the inhabitants do not realize when they wake up on the other side. This marks the culmination of the process set in motion way back in the 1930s. The engine behind the previous system change - the welfare state ideals - ebbs and leaves behind an emptiness of eroded equality, which is soon to be filled by a current of commercial euphoria. When the economic boom finally peaks, fifteen years of accumulated alienation comes rushing toward us. I, and many with me, stand there, dead sober in the dawn, surrounded by the collapsed Swedish model which had constituted our whole society. What happened? How did we allow that euphoria to take hold of us the way it did? I mean that kind of feeling that I got, and probably many others, when I finally was able to watch MTV, or Robert Aschberg's talk show on TV3, that I had heard about for so long; at last, I was on the train. At last, I was in touch with the contemporary pulse. The same feeling arises the first time one watches American television. It is impossible to stop watching; one is drawn by fascination and a few days go by before one begins to feel almost filthy in front of the commercial flow that cuts into the news and the rapid pace that makes everything seem like the final seconds of a rough and even ice-hockey game. In the case of a society, the time frame is years rather than days before the elation turns into disgust. During one period, politics were almost reduced to a question of color shades. Never has so much criticism been levied on the public sector as was the case toward the end of the last decade. It was, after all, so gray and colorless. This is one reason that makes looking through Lars Tunbjîrk's photographic essay an intriguing experience. It completely lacks images from public life, from hospitals or communal sport halls, from waiting rooms at the national social insurance offices or from the steps of city halls, from community houses or even police stations, from public memorials or public artworks in a town square during the Saturday morning rush. Not even the Systembolaget (the government liquor monopoly), the peculiar state-run institution with its department-store fatigue is represented. All public spaces are somehow wiped away. There are no traces of the Swedish labor market, of industry, of the health care or other service sectors, with the exception of retailing and tourism. Instead, I see the powers that emerged victorious from this period, roughly 1987 to 1992, when the photographs were shoot. The perspective is strong. In the end, the images are accusatory.

Taken together, the photographs form a kind of giant soap-bubble with a glossy surface on which an artificial rainbow floats around and around. My thoughts wander to the market, this cosmetic tray that was tipped over the country, and which stopped the progress set in motion way back between the wars. The photographs tell of something gone missing. It is not that class differences widened in Sweden during this period, from let's say the middle of the seventies to a few years ago; they have not begun to widen until now, when unemployment is on its way to stabilize on European levels. But Sweden stopped in its progress toward something worthier and more humane. "This means that the equalization trend that spanned several decades was broken," as a research report on welfare developments between 1981 and 1991 dryly describes it. The sadness brought on by Lars Tunbjîrk's photographs is therefore not rooted in any failure to establish the welfare state ideals due to fundamentally wrong blue-prints. Rather, it reflects the abrupt end of the movement, or that the effort was denied continuation because the industrial power elite said No and elected officials to the left of the Liberal Party did not say anything at all. Step by step, we arrived at a time of reduced collective expectations. We arrive one by one to the free-market paradise, and nowadays local elections can in some instances - and this is true - be likened to marketing efforts. Hence the emptiness; every citizen has a business card.

When the collective is allowed to shrink, the horizon narrows and in retrospect I often wonder what it was that took hold of us. "You have gone to school, and have something up there," my co-workers at a hot dog factory in Stockholm would tell me during the 1980s. "Did you ever think about playing the stock market?" We were in a run-down factory cafeteria and ten languages buzzed around the financial pages we had happened to turn up in some soiled morning paper. None of us had the energy to discuss the poor working environment, the stress and dirt, not to mention the floors, always slippery with grease; that would have demanded some kind of collective action. Sometimes when I came home at nights, I would wash my sweaty T-shirt in the sink, which would fill up with hot-dog broth. The only one who shook his head at our animated discussions on stock market prospects, which engaged Turks, Lebanese, Swedes, Eritreans, etc, was a Polish man who had escaped his country where he had been active in the Solidarity movement. He probably wondered where he had ended up. Bankers and real estate speculators were not the only ones to lose their heads during this period.

How much energy and human effort were not wasted on meaningless activities! At the same time, economists were trumpeted out from every corner that Sweden was falling behind in the growth and development league. But their cries for further development stemmed from a petrified world view in which industrial growth is the only thing that counts. The message from these free-market liberals effectively locked Sweden in an aging industrial structure and dated ideology which proclaimed the public sector a pain while industry supplies the gain. Still, it is better, from every perspective, if companies are forced to compete with quality goods rather than cheap labor. Then labor could be freed from traditional heavy industry and redirected to the service sector, like health care and education. Why was it never really made clear to the general public that the most successful Swedish exporting companies in the 1980s were those that developed in cooperation with the so scorned public sector? If there is such a thing as a humanistic future, it will be found in the expansion of the new service society. But in the general euphoria that erupted toward the end of the last decade, we failed to notice the cancellation of this future. Hence, I seem to detect how Lars Tunbjîrk's photo essay often speaks of a future that is broken down into its smallest, private parts, and instead of looking toward a future, we got all these days, all these years, of reduced collective expectations:

It no longer excites to deal with
Alternative Christmas and the labor movement:
Good is he who tastes good!

I let theses lines by Stig Larsson be the epitaph on the decline to the underground where people seem to exists in neon lights although it is outside and sunny. I do not grieve the extinct leftist movement (the alternative Christmas); in Sweden it merely complemented the realization of a welfare state. I do not even complain about the Americanization; ever since the emigration waves in the last century Sweden has enjoyed a creative and, in its deepest meaning, popular relationship with American culture. Both countries are unique in the sense that one, the US, escaped the feudal state's aristocracy while the inhabitants of the other, Sweden, never really accepted it. Compared to European cultural nations, Sweden harbors a kind of cultural pioneer sentiment that, for better or worse, has not allowed itself to be stopped by the power brokers in good taste.

Everywhere in these images I see people who have been hindered in the progress toward something and that brings on the distress. They often look out-of-place, and they seem to be aware of it. What is this sticky stuff that has fallen from heaven and in which everyone has gotten stuck? Candy pouring down over the shopping center? If I was an economist, I would bring up the series of devaluation's and deregulation that allowed heaps of unproductive capital to drift around. It poured over us, it changed us. There was so much capital left over when real wages stagnated that business men fled to Brussels and London to snap up real estate which later, overnight became worthless and transformed into giant foreign debt. (They are the ones who lived over everyone else's resources; the Swedish foreign merchandise and services trade balance has not been in deficit since 1982!). Something has been disrupted, and with a mix of anger and sorrow I realize that the first fifteen years of my adult life - I could have taken my driver's license by 1978 - can be looked back upon as a drowsy monument over a bunch of wasted years. "See the future," an advertisement slogan from furniture chain OBS encourages. It makes me so sad that I must seek solace in a time when it was still possible to formulate a belief in the future in totally different words, in a poem by Ragnar Thoursie, often quoted by Olof Palme. The solemnity of the poem, which dates back to the early 1950s and is written by a modernist later to become a white-collar worker, somehow touches me because it stems from the finest aspects of the welfare state ideals that really tried to create something of the collective.

Above the pine's rustle of time, above the fleeing years
on the wing of the cirrus cloud, broad and strong,
longs from night to day, from need
to freedom, the quest
which belongs to us all. An open city,
not fortified, we build together.
- Its light illuminates toward the loneliness of space.

Nostalgia? Not at all, because what I refer to is progress that has been severed, but which could, at any moment, be picked up again, which it must be in order for us, and the rest of the world, to solve the problems facing us. It is not narrow-minded nationalism, because it is not until now, when the Swedish model is on the brink of collapse, that egoism, racism and general gloom have set in. The welfare state ideals formulated something much more universal in which cooperation and collective action were very essentials for an enlightened person. In his last book, FrÜn det lydiga landet, the heretical economist Sven Grassman looked back on fifteen lost years, on a "plundered welfare state" where many had to save for a few. He posed the following questions, which deserve to be treated like poetry.

Can we return to the welfare state movement?
Can we once again achieve a somewhat
fair distribution
and politics in the interests of all citizens?
Of course we can, we just have to start.
We can start tomorrow!

But in order to "start tomorrow," and in order to create the kind of "open city" that Ragnar Thoursie envisioned, the people of Sweden must once again become visible. Grassman's optimistic urging presupposes that everyone cooperate, otherwise it fails. I want to argue there is a common ground here where these kind of political visions walk hand in hand with the fact that authors, photographers and artists are once again beginning to discover this country and the people who live here. That is why my feeling for Lars Tunbjîrk's photographs suddenly turns away from the emptiness I initially felt. It is not merely a bleak reminder of life's isolation that rushes toward me, but the photographs also encompass a folksy Sweden, obvious perhaps to a majority but something that nonetheless prompts the cultural middle-class in inner-city ghettos to back off. I use the word inner-city ghetto and note that the city of Stockholm is home to about 250,000 people, while the extended city houses up toward 1.2 million. When look at a list of addresses over the staff at Dagens Nyheter, which also includes me, it strikes me that all of us seem to live within a distinct circle, containing mainly Sîdermalm, but also Vasastan and some other areas within the city limits. (As if we were serfs on some estate).

Central Stockholm projects the official Sweden-image, and it would be strange if this image was not affected by the journalists and cultural workers who shape it. One reason which may explain why so little is written about growing joblessness is probably to be found in the fact that Stockholm has been drained of low-income wage earners in the last decade. (The same trend holds true in other European cities; artists and writers tend to seek out city parts where the memories of the working-class are still alive - like Belleville in Paris, or Trastevere in Rome). In August Strindberg's time, a half-hour walk through central Stockholm sufficed to cross through the whole class system spectrum. Fewer people live within the city limits now than at the turn of the century but the number of white-collar workers is clearly over represented.

The segregation is not, however, just a question of city versus suburbia. Statistics show that as much as 46 percent of the most revered cultural elite grew up in one of the major cities, as compared to 14 percent of the population as a whole. What happened to the medium-sized towns and sparsely populated areas? A research report had the following on-target observation to make about the Olympus of the cultural elite: "Scant representation of people with working-class background, strong urban representation." How could this world and its inhabitants understand the fireworks of experience that radiates so clearly from several of Lars Tunbjîrk's photographs? I, who grew up in this world but ended up outside and nowadays stand on the outside looking in, must, in the end, describe the experience as carnival- like. Santa Clauses appearing in the midst of a summer heat wave. Hamburgers as bloated as the sausages during a carnival week in Germany during the middle ages. Rebates, special offers and discount shopping malls are not exactly the vocabulary used in cultural circles. In the eyes of the cultural middle-class this carnival is at best exotic; at worst, it is tasteless. But the aversion is nothing other than the erosion of democracy. The collective, where our common problems shall be dealt with, corrodes when whole lifestyles are forced to live at its fringes. It runs the risk to turn into a saloon for an elitists few, who in turn are horrified by the threatening populism.

Those who read store flyers which arrive in the mail with genuine interest do not read them because they have been brainwashed by commercialism, but because they do not have enough money. These people often belong in the elderly generation which carefully checks special offers, saves old plastic bags, washes up old jam canisters and mustard jars and saves margarine boxes to freeze in blueberries or strawberries (pick-yourself). The elderly couple that holds up its package of bologna outside the store as if they have won a price may seem robbed of their dignity. But it would not surprise me if they are the same ones whose cupboards at home are overflowing with re-used disposable items.

Words like market and companies are much more than one-sided economic terms. Once I went to the town of Gnosjî to write a critical essay on inflexible small-business sentiment. While I remained critical, I could not help feeling a certain amount of respect for the deeply human in this sentiment. I noted that in an information sheet from the town, its local politicians, traditionally conservative, bragged about the "total absence of any upper class" in Gnosjî. What could I say when I later interviewed a man who had started his own business after failing to find a job in the area - he had been active in the union and no one wanted to hire him. He asserted he had greatly benefited from his union experience, and, he was still a member of it.

Sweden is large, so large that old men still drive around on mopeds that suddenly appear against chilly blue skies; they look as if they have visions I know nothing about. The country is so sparsely populated that another, slower, pace of life stubbornly remains. "I really don't give a damn about the evening news," is the superb line that remains with me from Colin Nutley's movie énglagÜrd. The ponderous old man who says it, turns open another life, a broader experience, and hundreds of thousands of Swedes flock to the cinema. To give name to that country, I sometimes turn to Bengt Berg, a country poet from VÑrmland, who in these lines from a book of poetry with the liberating name Thermos (1978), pins down the period and notes its customs in the simplest of ways.

Hagfors is the same: the way the 16-year-olds walk,
the a.m. stillness around the bus station, the iron works,
the apartment blocks and winter tires
No water but light beer and La Felicidad blaring
from Thursday walls, mandolin saxophones
and shallow chewing gum waitresses
who saunter up with bread basket and ground beef

Under a certain glared light, this image could very well make me depressed, but it does not, and for some time now, I search everywhere for such observations where something comes alive from the collapsed and idiotic times. It is an absolutely necessary step toward recapturing democracy - that everyone participates and that everyone is visible. I can see how something is returning from the deeply forgotten and, by the way, I see it everywhere nowadays. For a long time, I had to make do with farce. Take the television series Macken (gas station), for example. It emerged there: Swedish customs and traditions played out in the language of mockery in carnival form. The vast vacationing Sweden, which travels across the country in trailer caravans, became visible when families, clad in sport outfits, appeared at the store in the gas station. The gas station is not merely a highway oasis, but also the country store of our time. In the words of the poet C G Thosteman:

something long suppressed returns
in another shape
Like a long lost relative
who suddenly appears again
better dressed than when he left

In several communities it is there, at the gas station on the border between city and country, that people exchange views and where the world first arrives with the evening papers. On the whole, it is the comedians who, when they are good, recognizes the questions that are important for society in the long term. Kurt Olsson, who sometimes managed to combine all the qualities of the three Marx brothers, always asked his guests seated in the giant sofas at the Southern exit from Gothenburg: "Are you a union member?" In a period when few people get excited by alternative Christmas and labor market issues, that question, decisive for the whole welfare state, could perhaps only be asked by a comedian. But get rid of the comedy, the farce, and try to describe that Sweden which is almost exotically foreign to the cultural and media world: perhaps then it appears like a dream, a fantastic hallucination, a "Hollywood of feelings," as Stig Larsson has described it. When I sat for about a week and leafed through these pictures, Sweden seemed dreamlike and unreal. I saw people in supermarkets, department stores and shopping centers, as if explorers in a jungle of colors and offers, as if in an aggressive paradise. But then the pages turned silently inside me, paving the way for a much larger Sweden - as if all the vacation snapshots of the nation were coming forward for recognition. It really is about the very foundation on which democracy is based. There is life on this planet, in this country, and the sorrow I have talked about could perhaps just as well be described as an unrelieved need for change.

I stand divided, which explains perhaps why I cannot possibly sum up this essay into one powerful conclusion. Because when this larger Sweden emerges into the glare of the hangover, the Swedish flag is nothing more than something to wrap around oneself in the chilly morning after a party that was nothing more than bread and theatrical games.


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