The Nordic countries are not merely cute. There are things going on there beyond the open sandwiches and the charming crime dramas. And whatever their secret is, I’m fairly sure it goes beyond merely folksy notions about ‘coziness’ or ‘enoughness’ like ‘Hygge’ in Denmark or ‘Lagom’ in Sweden.
Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and all their associated territories are (mostly) exemplars of successful societies — consistently ranked among the happiest, most prosperous, and most peaceful countries in the world. They generally have low levels of inequality, healthy economies, relatively good protection of nature and high levels of social trust. Some argue that the way the Nordic countries run their societies is the best we can ever do. Political Scientist Francis Fukuyama described the world’s governance challenge as ‘getting to Denmark’ — just one example of the pedestal on which the Nordics are placed. If they have a fault it’s that they are sometimes a bit smug about it.
But it was not always like this. Danish Philosopher and comedy writer Lene Andersen and Swedish Social Theorist and Entrepreneur Tomas Björkman have recently published The Nordic Secret and will join us in London to share a compelling new theory.
As they put it on their website: “The story of the modern Nordics is the story of how some small, very religious, dirt-poor, and, in reality, totalitarian countries developed into affluent democracies with huge freedoms and stable economies.”
It is a story with a range of European and American influences but at its heart is a form of education — Bildung — that proactively developed everybody’s potential, and changed their fate. Partly inspired by their book, I wrote about Bildung towards the end of part five of the new edition of Spiritualise (p102). I believe it is an old idea whose time has come:
“Bildung is not parochial in nature, but as Pankaj Mishra highlights in The Age of Anger, it did grow out of the Germanic emphasis on Kultur as a reaction to some of the alienating aspects of cosmopolitanism, and the cultivation of one’s soul was therefore often grounded in national and local traditions:
Against individual fragmentation and self-maiming, the Romantic ideal of Bildung reaffirmed the value of wholeness, with oneself, others and nature. It was aimed to make the individual feel at home again in this world, instead of seeing it as opposed to himself.
Bildung is therefore neither individualist or collectivist, nor is it either populist or elitist in spirit. To some extent it answers David Goodhart’s recent post-liberal arguments for a commitment to particular people and particular places — ‘somewhere’, but the idea of somewhere can be both grounded and expansive. Moreover, the combination of personal autonomy, social solidarity and enriched perspective makes Bildung an appropriate response to spiritual pluralism. Bildung does not oblige you to believe or practice in any particular way, but it has religious roots; it explicitly seeks to connect our inner and outer worlds and yet allows scope for everyone to find their own way. The aim is to foster a culture where the inclination to grow spiritually is cultivated and supported, but only minimally directed.
Bildung creates the credible hope that arises from trying to align your actions with your world as you would like it to be, while simultaneously expanding and refining your view of yourself by adapting to the world as it is. In that sense, Bildung helps to give structure to the idea that the key to adapting to the meta crisis is spiritual sensibility because it is about how our view of the world and our place in it unfurls. We come to know who we are and what we most value by trying to bring about the world we want to live in.”
On their book’s website, the authors describe Bildung as follows:
“Bildung is the way that the individual matures and takes upon him- or herself ever bigger personal responsibility towards family, friends, fellow citizens, society, humanity, our globe, and the global heritage of our species, while enjoying ever bigger personal, moral and existential freedoms. It is the enculturation and life-long learning that forces us to grow and change, it is existential and emotional depth, it is life-long interaction and struggles with new knowledge, culture, art, science, new perspectives, new people, and new truths, and it is being an active citizen in adulthood. Bildung is a constant process that never ends.”
So now you know roughly what the Nordic secret is — it’s Bildung, but to make sense of why that’s the secret, who developed the idea in practice, where and when it happened historically, and how exactly it works socially, economically and politically, you’ll have to join Perspectiva on March 5th.
We’ll be exploring the idea in more depth and consider how we might re-establish a similar kind of emphasis on human development to adapt to modern democratic challenges. As with all previous Perspectiva events, some light audience participation will be encouraged throughout the event.
Jonathan Rowson is Director of Perspectiva, a chess Grandmaster and Open Society Fellow. You can reach him on Twitter @jonathan_rowson
The Nordic Secret: why personal development may be the key to social democracy was originally published in Perspectiva on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.