Monday, August 6, 2018

ABBA and Socialism

I mentioned in a previous post my recent shift in how I view socialism.

 Socialism and "The Swedish Model" came up last week during a camping trip because there were a few Swedes on the trip who had benefited from growing up in a "socialist" country but had some interesting insights to offer about it.  The most fascinating, by far, revolved around ABBA.  But I'll get to that in a second.  First, let's talk about socialism.

The "s-word" is one often said in a negative way, particularly by those who are more financially conservative.  They point to failed socialist countries like Venezuela or North Korea (which, I would argue, failed due to the totalitarian government and political corruption, not socialism, but tomatoes, tomahtoes).  

But socialism is a fairly poorly understood concept, perhaps because it's so incredibly broadly defined.  Socialism is any structure featuring social ownership.  In this sense, social security is a socialist entity.

Governments should serve people and not vice versa.

FDR's "New Deal" in the 1930s created both social security and unemployment insurance.  Unemployment payments, like social security, is another example of socialism in America.  Public works projects created by the New Deal were likewise socialist in nature.  If you rely on the fire department, post office, or public schools, you are already enjoying socialism.  We all pay into these programs and we all benefit from them, either directly or indirectly.

Yet people are still scared of socialism, so much so that being labeled as a socialist in America politics is something of a slur.  At least, it is among conservatives and the prior generation; more and more millennials are coming around to socialism as more and more jobs become automated and the market becomes less and less able to accommodate its workers.

The example young Americans like to point to when lauding socialism's benefits is usually some Scandinavian nation, such as Norway or Sweden.  Interestingly, though, Sweden is not a socialist state; it is merely a state run by the Socialist Democratic party and has never declared itself socialist.  It remains a democracy; the rise of its far left political powers in the mid-sixties was peaceful and without fatalities, making it markedly different than, say, the USSR or East Berlin, in which socialism paved the way for violent totalitarianism.

Here is one excellent article on why Sweden isn't a true socialist state (and arguably never was).  Sweden isn't a socialist country because it has maintained private ownership of productive assets.

Since the 1930s, Sweden has been controlled by a socialist party.  Interestingly, by the way, in 1936, Marquis Childs wrote Sweden: The Middle Way, in which he argued that the "Swedish Model" of government and economics was one that combined the safety net of economic socialism with the rewards of capitalism, and it was this book that helped influence Roosevelt's New Deal.

The Swedish model of socialism is one in which there exists a social welfare state, ensuring that people have access to healthcare and educations, but it remains an open market.  Sweden's capitalism has remained strong and, unlike other socialist or Marxist states, Swedish socialism has failed in its attempts to control cultural aspects of the state such as media or music.

The funniest example of Swedish socialism's failure to create a true communist state is probably ABBA.  That's right, the band.

See, Swedish socialism tried really, really hard to infiltrate education and culture in the 1970s and 1980s without much success.  RUM (The Swedish Federation of Young Musicians) was established in 1973 to try to drive cultural unity.  The government pushed, for example, Swedish jazz to be a cultural export, and it was jazz and classical music that was taught in the schools.  But without the heavy-handed approach of a totalitarian government, instead, they got death metal and pop bands... ones that were wildly financially successful and really threw a wrench into the whole "socialism" thing, because, in a perfect socialist model, super-fame, stardom, and windfalls of money don't have a place.

Attempts to rein ABBA in proved unsuccessful; having won Eurofest in 1974 with their hit song "Waterloo," ABBA's fame was bigger than Sweden's attempts to achieve true socialism.  The Swedish people loved ABBA and they were proud of having a rock band that represented their tiny country of then about 8 million people.  ABBA was popular in America and West Germany, capitalist countries, with multiple top singles on the Billboard charts in the late '70s.

The lyrics of many of their songs flew in the face of Sweden socialism: songs like "Money Money Money" and "Winner Take All" saturated Swedish culture and proved impossible to root out.

Sweden purposefully tried to achieve socialism in the late 1970s and early 1980s with 85% tax rates and formal laws aimed at redistributing ownership.  The result?  They lost ABBA, who dissolved in 1982.  ABBA had a British manager; one member of ABBA ended up moving to the UK, while another ended up moving to Switzerland.  (Note that the divorce of two of ABBA's members played a huge role in their break-up, and it might have occurred even without the pressure of new Swedish tax law.)

Sweden also lost Björn Borg, the world's top tennis player, who moved to Monte Carlo, although, hilariously, he later moved back to Sweden to buy an island and create a private fashion label that is only slightly less popular there than Calvin Klein.

Another point for the free market.

The attempts to rein in superstars like ABBA not only failed but in some ways influenced some of the popular aspects of the band.  For example, declaring "fantasy" outfits as deductables to their income, claiming that it wasn't possible to wear the same outfits onstage as in their normal lives, ABBA ended up with increasingly more extravagant outfits for their performances, which became a signature style of the band.

Tax attorney (shielding his eyes): "Okay, okay, I'm deducting, I'm deducting!"

Nowadays, Sweden's tax is around 50-60%, making it one of the highest in the world but allowing the country to keep some semblance of an open market.  So it would be fairer to say that Sweden is more socialistic than purely socialist.

Sweden's not perfect, but their model of government-- a democracy with a lot of heavy-handed social programs-- has led to their country being among the happiest in the world.  

So where do I stand on socialism?  Clearly, true socialism doesn't work and has too much room for corruption.  But having social programs and a big safety net for the citizens of a country seems to be a good thing.  ABBA sings about how winners take it all, and losers have to fall.  But maybe that isn't the case.  Maybe the "Swedish Model" proves that social programs can be instituted in a way that protects a country's most vulnerable citizens while allowing an elite few to achieve financial greatness.  Socialism as a government may not work, but socialist programs might.  And maybe it's about time that we took a chance.

"I work all night, I work all day / to pay the bills I have to pay.
Ain't it sad?  
And still there never seems to be/ a single penny left for me.
That's too bad.
Seize the means of production and abolish private ownership of property." 
- ABBA lyrics, probably

(Side note about me: I am not a politician, a historian, or an economist, so I am writing this from the perspective of a largely uninformed person who talked to a couple of Swedes last week and thought that our drunken, half-remembered conversation made for an interesting think-piece.  I could be way off-base here; I've done my best to cite sources but take everything written here with a grain of salt and, as always, do your own research.)

(Side note about ABBA: The band has said as recently as 2010 that they will never allow their music to be used politically and that they had absolutely no interest in supporting any party or position.  Sorry, ABBA.)

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