The days are short here in Stockholm, which is so far north that winter daylight is limited to about four hours a day. But the city is buzzing with visitors, media and activities, for the Nobel prizes are being given this week. While the Nobels recognize lifetime achievements in medicine, chemistry, physics, literature, economics and peace, and Sweden is a paragon among progressive, social democracies, there is another side to Sweden and the Nobels that warrants a closer look.
Alfred Nobel made a fortune as an inventor, principally for his invention of dynamite. He died in 1896, leaving most of his fortune to endow the Nobel prizes. Nobel lived in a time when European rivalries and wars were the norm. He believed the destructive power of his inventions could promote peace. He wrote to his lifelong friend, peace activist Bertha von Suttner, who would win the Nobel Peace Prize almost a decade after his death, "Perhaps my factories will put an end to war even sooner than your Congresses; on the day when two army corps will be able to annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will recoil with horror and disband their troops."
If only. Now countries can destroy each other many times over, but instead of recoiling in horror, they just continue buying ever more destructive weapons, ironically making Sweden one of the world leaders, per capita, in weapons exports. Nobel turned Swedish munitions into a stable, multinational enterprise. In 1894, he acquired the weapons company Bofors, now a subsidiary of the weapons maker BAE Systems. While the world’s eyes are on the Nobel Prize winners, several Swedes are facing prison time for taking direct action against Bofors.
Cattis Laska is a member of the anti-war groups Ofog and Avrusta, Swedish for mischief and disarm. She told me about their protests against the Swedish weapons industry: "We went into two weapon factories the same night. Two went into Saab Bofors Dynamics (while General Motors bought Saab’s auto division, Saab in Sweden makes weapons) … and they disarmed about 20 [grenade launchers] … to prevent them from being used in wars. They did it by using a hammer. There’s very much details in those launchers, so they have to be perfect. So it’s enough just to scrape inside to disable them. And then, me and another person went into the BAE Systems Bofors factory, where we disabled some parts for howitzers going to India. We also used hammers." Like the Plowshares activists in the United States, they follow the biblical prescription from Isaiah 2:4, turning "swords into plowshares."
Annika Spalde also participated in the actions: "We sell weapons to countries at war and to countries who seriously violate human rights, and still these sales just grow bigger and bigger, so we feel that we, as ordinary citizens, have a responsibility to act then and to physically try to stop these weapons from being shipped off." Spalde is awaiting trial. Laska has been sentenced to three months in prison.
Traditional Swedish politics also are in flux. Brian Palmer is an American, a former Harvard lecturer, who has immigrated to Sweden and become a Swedish citizen. Palmer has penned a biography of Sweden’s prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt. Palmer credits Reinfeldt, 43, with leading the shift away from the progressive social policies for which Sweden has become world-famous. He said Reinfeldt, in 1993, "wrote a book, ‘The Sleeping People,’ where he said that the welfare state should only prevent starvation, nothing beyond that. After being elected … one of his first major visits abroad was to George Bush in the White House."
Reinfeldt and his Moderate Party hired Karl Rove as a political consultant to help with the election coming in 2010. Palmer went on: "We have a real kind of silent war on the labor movement. We have a rather dramatic change in the tax system, abolishing the inheritance tax and most property taxes, cutbacks in social-welfare institutions." This week, a new coalition of center-left political parties formed to challenge this rightward drift.
The U.S. electorate has thoroughly rebuked the Bush administration, handing Barack Obama and the Democrats a mandate for change on issues of war and health care, among others. One of the world’s leading laboratories for innovative social policies, Sweden is now wrestling with its own future. Those seeking change in the U.S. would be wise to watch Sweden, beyond Nobel week.