From where I sit - Stockholm syndrome

March 8, 2012

I am an immigrant, again, and this time I don't speak the language. I am a well-paid immigrant, with a very good job and helpful colleagues. And I am taking language lessons, for free, courtesy of the Swedish government. I am making progress. But still, I am an immigrant. And I don't understand what is going on around me.

The question is, does anybody? What is the nature of our knowledge of the world around us - the world whose language we speak, whose customs we automatically follow, whose history we assume ourselves to be a part of?

Philosophers call this "tacit knowledge". Eventually, if I hang around in my new country long enough, like any other determined immigrant I should acquire enough of this tacit knowledge to feel like I understand my brave new world. But I am not counting on it.

When you talk to people who have lived here most of their lives, although they have this tacit knowledge, they themselves cannot really explain anything. They will claim to understand their worlds, but they cannot account for it. And how will I? How will I ever be able to answer my own questions about my adoptive country?

When you come to Sweden with the kinds of prejudices I brought to it - the kinds of prejudices typical of a left-wing, urban intellectual - you cannot help being impressed. The streets are attractive and clean, and the pavements are bustling with happy-go-lucky pedestrians who are, by and large, very well dressed, calm, alert, cheerful and thin. The affluence is palpable. The shops are full and stacked with merchandise. The cafes and restaurants are full.

All this in a country that has weathered the economic downturn far better than most, and also claims one of the highest levels of income equality in the world, not to mention one of the highest levels of welfare support from cradle to grave. And as for education - it's free. At some levels it is even better than free. A stay-at-home parent can get extra childcare and study-grant support if he or she is enrolled part-time in a college. My own PhD students, after a probationary stipendiary period, end up earning about £2,000 a month for being full-time PhD students.

Nobody knows exactly why the Scandinavian model has worked as well as it has; and nobody really knows whether it will continue working well in the future. The instinct of the ruling conservative party here is for what they call "reform", which means increased privatisation and commercialisation...on an English model. Swedish cities are looking more and more like shopping malls rather than public places, and the Swedish economy a pitiless technocracy. Income inequality, in fact, is rising.

Underneath the complacent prosperity there lurks a fear that life as it is simply can't go on much longer, although nobody, again, can explain this. Soon, I am told, on my research grant applications, I shall have to include an "impact statement".

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