Monday, 24 June 2013

The Swedish Deluge

Entirely coincidentally, I was in Stockholm a week or so after the riots there, giving a guest lecture at Södertörn University on the city's southern outskirts. There is a massively condensed piece on my impressions which you can find here. There was a tiny weeny little bit of glee from some people at the riots occurring at the heart of every Spirit Level reader's favourite 21st century economy, a trickle of Schadenfreude - look, the Social Democratic model is broken and there's no turning back - something which dovetails nicely with a critique from the right. The basic assumption of both is that Social Democracy or the 'Nordic Model' was a sort of historical fluke, something enabled by various kinds of luck - geopolitical neutrality, small and cohesive populations, petroleum, rural societies ready for urbanisation. Pyzik, with me on the journey, is particularly keen on pointing out the far more propitious circumstances Scandinavia had for creating a fairer society when compared with post-war Eastern Europe (not to mention China, south-east Asia...). All of this is true. But it wasn't obvious from the start, and maybe what is valuable today in Swedish Social Democracy is what a leap it was, especially compared with the conformist record of most reformist governments in the interwar years - it is rare in the history of reformism in general for actively trying to achieve hegemony. 


Ah but if only they'd been overthrown by a Fascist coup bombarding their housing schemes, then maybe their monuments and figureheads would live eternally in our memories along with Karl Marx Hof and Salvador Allende....always, solidarity with the defeats, suspicion for the victories. Quite how close Sweden came to a (localised, for sure) classless society can be garnered by this fascinating article in an old issue of Socialist Register by Rudolf Meidner, the economist of the LO, the Swedish TUC. Meidner is best known for the Rehn-Meidner model, where full employment and low inflation were improbably combined, partly via wage restraint; and his later proposals to funnel the proceeds of that wage restraint into 'wage-earner funds' which would enable workers to take over ownership of the highly successful and highly monopolised industries that powered Swedish capitalism - Ericsson, Volvo, Tetrapak, IKEA - the latter of which, he reminds us, owed its success to providing furniture for housing built under the famous 'Million Programme'. The scheme was partially implemented but botched, and eventually the money was spent on culture and scientific research instead. However, the seriousness of the attempt of, at first, creating a genuine compromise between labour and capital and then overcoming that compromise, can't be doubted. But that it hasn't been sustained is equally obvious - begging the question of how something seemingly so strong could have been so undermined. So the failure and success of the Swedish Long Revolution should, we thought, have been easy to see via a walk around its capital.

Södertörn University is a peculiar place on a hilltop in the southern suburbs, reached by a sort of escalator-funicular, which at the top looks like this, above - sober late modernism with sudden and bizarre geological outbreaks. Knowing that the riots had been entirely localised to areas built under the Million Programme, where the Social Democrats had built a million flats and houses in ten years, I asked to be pointed in the direction of the nearest - which was very nearby, apparently, I was told, a particularly notorious example, albeit one where there were 'only a couple of burning cars'. Flemingsberg, for it is there, is reached by walkways, via a large Brutalist hospital:

...and then you end up here, where a glossy new shopping centre lies inbetween the older blocks, some reclads, and an equally glossy new hotel. Evidently works are still happening here. The upgrade programmes for the Million Programme areas often involve 50% rent hikes, cited by some as one of the causes of the suburbs' anger. Further on, along the pedestrian walkways of this completely car-free space, you can find the usual paraphernalia of a good, well-thought-out peripheral estate - youth centres, shops, cultural facilities, the inevitable modernist church.

It's made up of several immense prefabricated slab blocks, which have cantilevered balconies, fanning out Brunswick Centre style at the lower parts of the slabs. Compare them with the GLC's work at, say, the Aylesbury, and it's not flattering to the UK - the applied colour actually works spectacularly well, especially in weather like this - optimistic, bright, never obvious. And then there's the landscaping. Turn a corner and you could easily end up somewhere like this:

The pedestrian paths were walked by a fair amount of people in the hour or so I was there, so didn't feel particularly isolated or isolating; and sometimes you have small shops in them, like so:

It's very hard indeed to see Flemingsberg as a ghetto, which it is, at least in a sense - you see more non-white people in an hour here than in several hours in much of the city centre. The immigration policy in Sweden, like the welfare state and 'the solidarity wages policy' is something that seems to vaguely endure without anyone knowing why; so it has one of the fairest immigration policies in Europe, and police who like to call people 'monkeys'. It's a hard question to fathom for a outsider with access to a tiny handful of English articles, but its effects are undeniable and massively visible. But aside from having quite a few boy racers on motorbikes speeding unannounced along the pedestrian pathways, it's equally hard for an outsider to see anything much wrong here.

Here, at the entrance to the train station, you can see a possible reason why Flemingsberg is 'notorious', perhaps - from a distance all you can see is enormous slabs, and as with the Heygate, Park Hill et al, few get close enough to see anything other than enormous slabs. And though a train can get you to the centre in 20 minutes, it hardly feels contiguous with the rest of the city.

Back to the capitalist centre, now one of the most expensive places to live in Europe. Like the area around Les Halles and the Pompidou in Paris, the square around the Kulturhuset feels more mixed than most - a genuine agora. It's overshadowed by Stockholm's various essays in Manhattanism, from a spectacular, Playtime-esque arrangment of curtain walls in enfilade, to the earlier, more Fritz Lang-like Gothic skyscrapers rammed onto overhead walkways.

The drama of this place, with its multiple levels, is proof that a city doesn't need 8 million people to feel like a metropolis - but the overwhelming sense of obsessive cleanliness can get pretty wearying, as does the monoculture of banks and offices, often in blander, later buildings, all of them planned and uniform. Agata, perpetually annoyed when a country seems to have managed socialism better than the 'socialist countries, is practically hissing here at the tidiness and anality. She recounts an anecdote from a Boris Kagarlitsky essay about a group of Swedish revolutionaries refusing to drink their bottles of beer when they realised they didn't have a bottle opener. Kagarlitsky apparently showed them the several opener-free methods.

Walking west from here we arrive at a very early bit of socialist housing, built in the interwar years. As mentioned in Eric Clark and Karin Johnson's essay 'Circumscribed Neoliberalism' (in this book, and my main source for most of this; and see also), Sweden did not have 'social' housing, but an entire apparatus of regulated and public housing - housing built by the several municipally-owned building companies, housing run by tenant-owned co-operatives, and rigorous rent control for what was left in private hands. Anyone could get on the waiting list and after a few years get a choice of flats, which would pass out of their 'possession' on death. Like the 'solidarity wage policy', the intent is straightforwardly egalitarian - to avoid any divide between rich and poor areas, something that the reception of the Million Programme may have eventually destroyed. Anyway - these are the first draft, built in the city centre in 1927, by the housing co-operative SKB, who are still in existence. The effect is not unlike the early LCC tenements of the Boundary Estate, although rendered in bright colours and with more specifically Swedish-classical details and oriented, Jane Jacobsites, to streets rather than courtyards. It's these that really make it, little street-centred touches like these entrances:

The effect is a little like some of the Socialist Realist areas built in Warsaw in the '50s only vastly better maintained - and a statue, unambiguously titled 'Worker', sits at the heart of it. Just in case you were wondering about the politics. Tor Lindstrand points out that the housing programme here came from a social movement before it did from a government; but also that these were the first to be sold off, as early as the late '60s. The waiting list (according to wikipedia) for SKB's city centre apartments is 25 years. 

So as the city centre has and evidently already had a level of demand that couldn't accommodate everyone who needed housing, even if the lot was nationalised, the city had to build outwards, and you get places like Vällingby, which like all architectural tourists we had to visit. Vällingby is quite far from the centre - adjusting for size it's not massively different from the placing of Thamesmead in London, built less than a decade later - a partly self-sufficient new town within the capital, with a roughly similar projected population. Unlike Thamesmead, obviously, they didn't completely bugger it up via half-completed plans and never-completed tube links. It's also architecturally a great deal more mellow and straightforward - the system of pedestrian walkways is subtler, and the system-building (common in Scandinavia) is hidden rather than accentuated. 

Accordingly the town centre of Vällingby immediately appears from the Metro station as a mid-century modern theme park, with all the signs and details left in place, from the whimsical light fittings to the signs on the cinema and the cafe. 

This is slightly deceptive, though. Walk around that town centre, and aside from noticing that it's basically Coventry or Stevenage with considerably more care and money lavished on its maintenance, you also soon notice that things have happened to it that would also happen to their British equivalents. A mall, with an exurban prefab retail park at the end - Sweden was the partial inventor of the Big Box retailer, after all.

The shops are the same as any others anywhere else in the world, for the most part - McDonalds, a big H&M, not a lot that seems specific to the area other than the realistically modelled Swedish mannequins. Then some of the precincts have these high-tech canopies over the top, like so:

This renovation was prize-winning, it transpires. The residential areas around the town centre are still in remarkably good shape, though: lines of tenements interspersed with tower blocks to the street, but pass under the archways of the former and you get to things like this:

The effect isn't that different to what was being tried by the 'People's Detailing' era at the LCC, only, again, much better maintained, and with much more spatial generosity - less sense of the site being maximised which happens when you have less publicly owned land. Though what the Swedish flag signifies here I'm not entirely sure. There's a small market outside the Metro station, which was apparently the focus for Vällingby's small part in the unrest - apparently some youth went in there smashing up trains during the week of the riots. Yet any menace is pretty hard to ascertain. It may be peripheral, but even more so than in the far less obviously affluent Flemingsberg, it's hard to see it as a ghetto. At the very least, it wasn't built as one. Frankly, compared with the two cities I spend most time in - London, and Warsaw - the level of care and attention obviously expended on this place is gobsmacking, and it's this which probably makes it so difficult to criticise the rump social democracy that pertains here - you have to look deeper, into questions of privatisation, rent, policing, employment - and Stockholm seems to be pretty good at concealing their effects. Which was especially clear in the next place we went to. 

Hammarby Sjostad is, in effect, a post-industrial regen development like any other, the bringing of unprofitable 'brownfield' space back into profit-making service. And architecturally, too, it isn't particularly nonconformist. There's fewer cladding materials than you'd get in London and a lot less height than you'd get in Warsaw, but  the model is the same - concrete frames clad in various kinds of shiny. It also follows all the urban renaissance rules - traditional street plans, shops on the ground floor, Active Frontages and Mixed Uses. It doesn't feel at all hidebound by that, however - there's nothing twee or New Urbanist about Hammarby, though it does, like Flemingsberg and Vallingby, boast the very mid-century retro feature of a modernist church.

The obvious parts have been copied with grim effect in sundry developments across the UK, but the non-obvious parts haven't - the subtle relationship with the water, with marshes, rocky outcrops and boardwalks (whereas in Cardiff, say, you'd build a barrage to make sure there was nothing interesting to see), the squares and courtyards, none of which feel like an afterthought but rather like real public spaces meant for enjoying, loitering in and lying around in. Look!

You don't get that at Paddington Basin. But here, too, is a public-private partnership in social terms where the private appears to dominate. There are some flats built by the no-longer-non-profit SKB, but Hammarby mostly looks extremely affluent, and the shops and cafes are expensive and vaguely pretentious. 

What seems to have happened to Sweden's Long Revolution is familiar: inertia from a left unwilling to deepen that revolution, leaving it open for dismantlement by a radical right. But evidently proud of the far higher standard of living and standard of built environment it achieved, Stockholm appears to have avoided the worst of neoliberalism; mainly in the sense that its new neoliberal developments have retained the best things about social democracy - care, careful planning, benign technocracy - largely for the purpose of housing the affluent. This could be a depressing conclusion, but imagine for a moment that Hammarby was low-cost public housing, as open as the peripheral Million Programmes, and imagine what a massive vote of confidence in the possibility of a genuine social democracy that might have been. Or, alternatively, we could just ignore all of this experience of trying to build non-capitalist spaces as a confidence trick, an outdated compromise - after all, it's not Full Communism, is it? 


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  2. I got the impression you were trying to show what is wrong with the Swedish system, but you just ended up making it look like a lovely place to live.

  3. not quite: what I was trying to do was resist my immediate impression that it was a lovely place to live, because that loveliness is increasingly unevenly distributed. The loveliness is not in doubt, I don't think.

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