Gunnar and Alva Myrdal
(This is the fourth in a series of articles on “the Swedish model”. Part one is here. It is an introduction that relates Swedish socialism to Bismarck’s reforms. Part two is here. It is about the persecution of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”.)
In 1997 the world was shocked to learn that between 1935 and 1976 Social Democratic governments forced 63,000 women into being sterilized. As part of a eugenics program meant to weed out the genetically or racially ”inferior,” the women were told that they would lose benefits and be separated from their living children if they refused. Typically the women were poor, learning disabled or people with non-Nordic or mixed ethnic backgrounds.
The Roma were prime targets of this persecution. In January 2011, Swedish government official Erik Ullenhag admitted, “Throughout history the Roma have been victims of unacceptable abuse, such as forced sterilisation and being deprived of the right to educate their children.” Long after forced sterilization came to an end, the Roma were still being singled out in a Nordic version of racial profiling as CounterPuncher Ritt Goldstein reported on secret files maintained by the cops on Romas, a so-called “gypsy registry”. One entry reported a woman as being as “black as night”.
For the longest time, Sweden social democracy has had a thing about the underclass. Beneath the velvet glove of social benefits, there is the mailed fist of laws intended to rid society of those elements that could not be molded into proper members of “the people’s home”—the term coined by the social democrats to describe their ideal.
Even before eugenics became government policy, you could see a strain of hostility toward the poor in the Stockholm School of economics—their version of Keynesian theory—where Gunnar Myrdal and Dag Hammarskjold were trained.
Johan Gustaf Knut Wicksell, a leading light of the business school of the University of Stockholm that had a profound impact on social democratic policy, was a diehard Malthusian and as such a firm believer in birth control not so much from the standpoint of women’s liberation but as a way to keep Sweden from being “overpopulated”, particularly by the riffraff who are alcoholics or prostitutes as he was fond of pointing out in his lectures.
As leading lights of the Swedish social democracy, Gunnar and Alva Myrdal played a major role in developing the policies that would lead to the monstrous punishment of the weak and the poor. Their theories were hardly the stuff of the Third Reich. You will not find anything about defending Nordic purity, etc. Instead it would be described as “pronatalism”, a belief that the government had a duty to promote family growth in a society that was experiencing falling birthrates despite Wicksell’s neo-Malthusianism. For the Myrdals, poverty was not a breeder of large families, which is often thought to be the case. Instead Sweden faced a problem of demographic decline since the Victorian era, one that the Myrdals interpreted as the outcome of inadequate means. So the answer was to shore up the nuclear family through public housing, income supplements, subsidized medical care—all the things we associate with the modern welfare state. They were also strong supporters of birth control but much more from the standpoint of women’s liberation than neo-Malthusianism.
In “The Swedish Experiment in Family Politics: The Myrdals and the Interwar Population Crisis”, Allan Carlson describes a set of policies that were not only carried out but became the “Swedish model” for Bernie Sanders and countless other American leftists who when the word socialism was mentioned thought of Sweden rather than Cuba. Their recommendations on health care would most certainly endear them to readers of the Nation Magazine:
Turning to health care, the Myrdals praised Sweden’s medical system for already embodying certain principles of social responsibility. From a population policy perspective, cost-free child health care was the most urgently needed reform. The costs of maintaining children’s health, the Myrdals asserted, must be freed from every competing aspect of a family budget. Furthermore, public health service doctors should concentrate primarily on children, particularly preschool children, “which is completely natural, since preventive health care essentially is child care:’ In light of these needs, the complete reform of the medical profession became urgent. There was “little likelihood” that the private efforts of individual doctors would produce any significant change. Abuses and problems among doctors would be solved only through a “great social political program” that brought them all under state regulation.”
If you keep in mind that such a program was intended to “breed” a superior sort of human being that could take his or her place as a productive member in the “people’s home”, you can understand why they would as well look askance at the sort of human beings rolling off the assembly line that were designated as rejects.
Carlson described the Mr. Hyde to their Dr. Jekyll:
Under the rubric of “quality-oriented” policy, the Myrdals described forced sterilization as a necessary option. While affirming, from a “race-biological viewpoint,” the equality of genetic material among all Swedish population groups, they added that a genetically inferior (mindervardighet) substrata existed within the population: the insane, the mentally ill, the genetically defective, and persons of bad or criminal character. With the German nazi program again as foil, the Myrdals stressed that their category of targeted individuals was drawn from all population and social groups. The reproduction of this inferior stock was undesirable, since offspring ran a strong risk of hereditary damage to health and intelligence. Because the government would be called upon to support genetically damaged children, the Myrdals concluded that the state had the right in limited cases to force sterilization on individuals. The guiding assumption should be to resort to the process only in recognized serious cases of illness and defect and only among those incapable of “rational decisions.” Where individuals were capable of reason, voluntary sterilization should be actively urged. Failing this, free contraceptives and eugenic abortion should be made available.
For the most thorough discussion of Swedish social democracy and eugenics, I recommend the article “Eugenics and the Welfare State in Sweden: The Politics of Social Margins and the Idea of a Productive Society” (Journal of Contemporary History July 2004) by Alberto Spektorowski and Elisabet Mizrachi who ironically were faculty members of Tel Aviv University, a pillar of the state that has carried out its own form of cleansing. In another article Spektorowski recommends that Israel become part of a regional framework based on the European Union in order to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I hope that this folly does not prejudice you against his scholarship on Sweden that is first-rate.
The Myrdals came of age when eugenics was all the rage in Europe. Francis Galton coined the term in 1883 as a way of applying social Darwinism to family planning. It became a staple of the Fabian Socialists who were gung-ho for weeding out undesirables. For George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and the Webbs, it was key to social betterment through gradual reform.
Oddly enough, Russian Marxists also embraced it, including Leon Trotsky who referred to it in “If America Should Go Communist”:
While the romantic numskulls of Nazi Germany are dreaming of restoring the old race of Europe’s Dark Forest to its original purity, or rather its original filth, you Americans, after taking a firm grip on your economic machinery and your culture, will apply genuine scientific methods to the problem of eugenics. Within a century, out of your melting pot of races there will come a new breed of men – the first worthy of the name of Man.
Indeed, the Swedes and the Russians would have disavowed the use of eugenics on a racial basis. Unlike the Nazis, they would limit it strictly to those who were mentally deficient, mentally ill, or had epilepsy. Alfred Petren, the head inspector of Sweden’s mental institutions and a member of parliament, submitted the first sterilization bill in 1927. He argued that it was necessary to avoid costly life-long institutionalization. Well, that makes sense when you think of how that would have drained precious resources for raising those better qualified from a social Darwinist perspective.
Not every leftist went along with this proposal. Carl Lindhagen, a member of parliament, stated:
When one thus has tread the path of correcting a social evil by means of force, violating the inviolability of life . . . many will say: this is only the first step. Why should we stop here? … Why only deprive these individuals useless to society and to themselves of their ability to procreate? Is it not more charitable to take their life as well?
As the years sped by, Lindhagen’s warnings would become prophetic. By 1941, it was no longer a question of congenital failings. It now became social failings as well. Spektorowski and Mizrachi write:
In 1941, the reforms advocated to expand the sterilization bill were more far- reaching than eugenic argumentation would allow, and originated in part in the frustration of legislators over the limited extent to which sterilization was performed under the existing legislation. The primary reason for expanding the law was to regulate the sterilization of those considered fit to give their consent to the operation. The new law would regulate the voluntary steriliza- tion of persons of ‘legal capacity’. The proposed law added a social indicator to the existing reasons for sterilization, implicating persons who ‘due to an asocial way of life are . . . obviously unfit to have custody of children’. Asociality in this instance meant vagabondry, alcoholism, etc.
The central claim from the social point of view was that children, due to one or both parents’ ‘inferiority’, would grow up in an unfavourable environment and not receive the care and upbringing necessary to develop into capable members of society. In those cases it would be better if children were not born. This was considered a humanitarian approach.
Finally, although it does not relate to the question of eugenics, a brief word should be added about the Myrdals’ most famous book, “The American Dilemma”, that dealt with racism. At the time it was considered a breakthrough since it regarded the “pathologies” of the slum as a product of a race-divided society.
Not long after the book was published in 1944, Herbert Aptheker charged it with failing to put the blame on capitalism in a short book titled “The Negro People in America: A Critique of Gunnar Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma”. This was followed by other critiques by African-Americans as Thomas Sugrue pointed out in a Nation Magazine article:
Oliver Cromwell Cox, the West Indian-born sociologist whose brilliant but mostly neglected book Caste, Class, and Race was published just a few years after An American Dilemma, took Myrdal to task for downplaying the connection between race and economic exploitation. Cox singled out Myrdal’s “mystical” belief that changing individual attitudes would end the “exploitation” at the heart of racial inequality. “In the end,” wrote Cox, “the social system is exculpated.” Myrdal’s critics grew more numerous in the 1960s. In their 1968 manifesto Black Power, Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton offered their own challenge to individualistic understandings of race relations and coined the term “institutional racism” to account for the ways that racial inequality was not solely or even primarily a matter of beliefs or attitudes. They pinpointed “conditions of poverty and discrimination” rooted in unequal relationships of power and privilege, like the healthcare system that failed urban blacks and that “destroyed and maimed” lives every bit as effectively as the actions of the most brutal individual racists.
As I will point out in a subsequent article, Myrdal’s failings had to do with the very nature of Swedish “socialism”—its abandonment of Marxism in favor of a liberalism that would be the envy of the world until capitalist crisis rendered it just as obsolete as Soviet era “socialism”.
But in my next post, I will describe how Swedish neutrality during WWII coincided with a lucrative trade relationship with Nazi German.