All 2 entries tagged Gothenburg

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July 21, 2010

Final meditations on Göteborg

Gothenburg, as a post-industrial harbour city, tells a similar story of gentrification, tourism, private services to East London, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Barcelona - and one that Gdanks, Napoli or Genova would like to tell too. It's a glossy, triumphalistic story of getting ever cleaner - but which has its dark side of exclusion and removal. The Haga ex-working class district, for instance, is an Islington in miniature and a near-pure ideal type of post-industrial gentrification + tourism.gentrified Haga

The book "(re)searching Gothenburg", written by 37 Gothenburg sociologists (edited by H Holgersson, C Thörn, H. Thörn and M. Wahlström) for the World Sociological Congress to challenge the dominant narrative, tells this story very well, and adds some interesting idiosyncratic specificities.

The 'Gothenburg's spirit' of trade, business and private donation for culture and philantropy has combined for a while with Swedish social democracy, into a particularly pragmatic, and outward looking, version of it. The ambitious public housing programs of the 1960s, in particular, destroyed the long-existing working class solidarities by dis- and re-placing the population.

Volvo, with its large factory in the North of the city, is one important influence, sponsoring for instance the film festival. The 'strong man of Gothenburg' Göran Johansson, socialdemocrat former unionist at SKF and for four decades mayor or otherwise prominent politician, is another one. Together, they have combined in a particularly moderate version of the Saltsjöbad spirit (the 1938 'founding' compromise between unions and employers). 'Budget dinners' between socialdemocrats administrators and business people in expensive restaurants exemplified this local version of 'corporatism'.

Also, Gothenburg is particular in its particularly ruthless revision of the Saltsjöbad spirit since the 1990s. The success of Gothenburg as an 'entrepreneurial city', 'event area' and 'knowledge centre' has also involved increased segregation and inequality - particularly visible in the case of ethnic minorities, but with also an increasingly visible class dimension. Gothenburg is not just the place of big sport events, concerts and congresses. It is also where, on the 30th of October 1998, 63 young people from the suburbs and mostly with immigrant background died in a fire during a party in an immigration association's venue. In 2009, for the first time, there have been ethnic riots - if incomparably smaller than the French ones. Also the apparently consensual environment issue actually has a deepening conflictual side, with acts of resistance and mobilisation including sabotage of SUV (nice idea if you ask me, but I imagine the difficulty of building alliances with Volvo workers).

So Gothenburg is very Swedish and socialdemocratic - but more so, for good and evil. Scandinavian countries are actually those, in Europe, with the biggest social relative disadvantage for immigrants, youth, disabled (although, in absolute terms, these groups are better off in Scandinavia than in most other EU countries - but then, they are more likely to compare themselves to the locals, than to their peers somewhere else). The frequently mentioned reason is skills (or lack thereof), ever more important in the knowledge economy. Yet skills don't fall from the sky and are themselves the product of a social system, which can include and exclude.

Gothenburg now attracts business, trade and Ryanair tourists. And Sweden is now referred to as a model not by the Left, but by the Right: the Tories keep referring to Sweden with regard to how to cut the deficit fast (Sweden did it rather safely in the 1990s, but starting from a much richer welfare state and therefore without so much pain: it had the luxury to ring-fence expenditure on higher education and research, instead of health), and to the free schools (but even in Sweden, these increased segregation, without overall improvement in standards, according to research by Susanne Wilborg of the Institute of Education).

Kitchen Stories

Everlasting Moments

Let's finish with movie images of Sweden. With regard to society and social history, two movies taught me a lot about Sweden (OK, I have not watched many more, even if Nordic cinema is among the very best). "Kitchen Stories" is actually a Norwegian movie (Salmer Fra Kjokkenet, by Bent Hamer, 2003), but it describes an amazing research program of the Swedish Home Research Institute's scientists in the 1950s: introducing ergonomy into private kitchens, starting from sending dozen of observers into a sample of bachelors' houses, to sit on high chairs in the corner of their kitchen to collect statistics on their physical movements - on the assumption that men must be more efficient than housewives. In the name of positivist science, the observers were forbidden to interact or even speak to the observed, while staying in their kitchen for weeks on. On this 'objectively' exhilarating base, Hamer builds a comedy drama at typically Nordic slow pace, which offers lots of reflection material not just on state control, but also on researcher-researched relations. Btw, IKEA is the side effect of that very research program.

The second movie is "Everlasting Moments" (Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick, by Jan Troell, 2008), a biopic of Swedish female photographer Maria Larssons in the 1910s-20s. In its structure, the movie is just a traditional linear historical movie, rather didascalic. But it adds original insights on the power of photography and of choosing images through a lens (it reminds at times Kieslowski's masterpiece Camera Buff [Amator]), as well as reflection on the Swedish working class, Swedish women and Swedish religious morality before socialdemocratic emancipation - which with all its limits, let's admit it, was still a pretty good thing.

July 14, 2010

Göteborg & the remains of the Swedish model

I am at the World Sociological Congress in Göteborg but I won't bore with sociology here. Contentwise, I'll only mention a non sociologist: the Nobel-Prize for Chemistry Yuan-Thseh-Lee, who gave the key note speach on the future of the environment: a much more briliant presentation than Al Gore's movie, with the striking message was that the situation with global warming is not as bad as we believed: it is quite worse.

Humanly, it was nice to celebrate the achivements of the outgoing International Sociological Association's president Michel Wieviorka, famous for having been my co-supervisor in Paris. And it was moving as well as joyful to participate in an unusual very-official+very-informal reception for the retirement of Eddie Webster, held by His Excellency the South Africal Ambassador to Sweden "comrade" Mr S R Makgetla. Eddie has been not just a leading labour sociologist, but has been a prominent intellectual in the South African anti-apartheid movement - having been even jailed in 1985 and taking the opportunity of the trial to deliver a sociological lecture on the importance of free trade unions. Sweden - whose East India Company had narrowly missed colonising South Africa ahead of the Dutch - had been quite important in the international movement against apartheid, too.

What about Sweden today? Sometimes it is still mentioned as a "model", with a series of myths, whether positive (the perfect welfare state) or negative (the high suicide rate: this myth drives Espin Andersen mad). I don't like the ideas of models, whether they are the Soviet Union, America, or Sweden: in this case, you can't imitate a country that missed both world wars and made a fortune by avoiding them, and which has just 9 million people on a huge surface (which is why I limit myself to "large" countries in my 2 years).

But above all, Sweden is no model anymore, starting from itself. In the 2006 elections, it shifted to the Right and the Socialdemocracts fell to 35%, the worst result since 1921. And right now, after a long period in which the Left was well ahead, the opinion polls ahead of the September elections suggest that the Right will win again, with the socialdemocrats down to 30% and even a growing extreme right in the possible role of kingmaker. It would be the first time since the 1930s that the socialdemocrats are out of government for more than one term. Amongst the reasons, the usual suspects: fiscal crisis [but the deficit is v small], immigration, fear for the recession [Sweden has actually benefited from its welfare state and benefits to keep demand up, but more recently, with perfect electoral timing, the government has introduced some vote-boosting stimulus]. What survives is the gender model, with very high female employment (although largely segregated in the public sector), 85% of fathers taking paternity leave, ban on buying sex. But even on the gender dimension voters (the male ones?) are turning their backs to the more radical proposals of the socialdemocrats and the Left Party.

Before the start of the congress, labour sociologists organised an informal meeting, in a culture club in Haga, with Swedish trade unionists. Quite a lot of complaints about the Socialdemocrats shifting to the right, and about the unions themselves. Some - but opinions diverged - contrasted this with Norway, where the unions are more assertive and the socialdemocrats resist in power and do not privatise/liberalise schools and welfare state like in Sweden. Yet, the Norwegian unions are the only ones among the Nordic ones not to have 80%-plus membership (they have "only" about 50%), because they do not have the so-called Ghent system whereby the unions co-manage unemployment insurance, so that workers join them believing that could miss out if they don't. Without wanting to be sectarian, it seems to me that sometimes it may be better to have not so many members, but a bit more committed ones.

Göteborg is still a pretty place, as lively as any port city but without the social decadence: so the remains of socialdemocracy are still visible everywhere. Even if the weather is tropically hot and humid, and the population is all sunbathing on the archipelago: Yuan-Thseh-Lee must be right.

PS1: I'll bow to some populist pressure to write about football, following the South African theme of this entry. I watched Spain-Holland in Italo-Anglo-Dutch company in a dark Göteborg pub. The locals were all for Holland, and asked why, they explained it was because they like "certain Dutch laws". With regard to the Cup, just like in politics and economics, arguments about the decline of Europe (widespread during the first round) were premature, and European countries occupied the first three places, only a slight decline from the four of 2006. The proof of their hegemony is that Brazil - tu quoque - adopted a European, utilitaristic style of play (and left Ronaldinho at home just because he is chubby and enjoys life! On these frankly outlandish criteria, Maradona would not have been selected for Argentina in '86).

PS2: for more in-depth accounts of the 'dark' side of Sweden, especially with regard to gender, I recommend the article in the Observer on the case of Goran Lindberg, the chief of the Swedish police and hero of women right who turned out to be at the centre of a child prostitution ring - the case and its sleazy details were all over the frontpages while I was in Sweden, but I overlooked it as without understanding the text I preferred not to base my judgment on the pictures.

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