All 4 entries tagged Sweden

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March 27, 2012

"Lean production" in Stockholm City Hall (and lean cuisine in Scandinavia)

Thin ice, from the Oslo-Stockholm trainAfter a few days in Oslo, and a 6-hour train journey, I am in Stockholm since last Saturday. The train journey was a beautiful calm crossing of forests and thawing lakes, and it was unbelievably cheap: 95 Swedish korons, half the price of the airport train from Oslo centre to Oslo airport...

In Stockholm, among other King's Speech in the Golden Hallthings, I am attending the International Labour Process Conference, a loosely Marxist congregation of people doing excellent critical research on work, inspired by Paul Thompson's writings. One of the main topics today was 'lean production', something the Japanese of Toyota invented a few decades ago and became a management mantra, although there is dubious evidence about its effectiveness and some evidence of negative effects on employees.

Tonight's conference reception was held in nothing less than the City Hall, the majestic building where, every year, a dinner and ball is held for the winners of the Nobel Prizes. I am sick and tired of waiting for that prize that never arrives, so I thought that I would settle for seeing the place now. We were welcome, in the Golden Hall, by the City Council president. Surelywith a polite intent, she said that she was happy to notice 'lean organisation' among the themes of our conference, because Stockholm City Council is an enthusiastic implementer of 'lean organisation' systems!... This is a constant irony: the more we do research to criticise something, the more we end up legitimising that same thing. But never mind: the reception was nice, and Paul Thompson had the well-deserved satisfaction of addressing us in such a prestigeous setting.

PS. In my ten days in Scandinavia I have eaten fantastically. Long are past the times when these remote lands offered only smoked herrings and vodka. "Nordic cuisine" has its golden moment right now, and if Copenhagen gets most of the highlights, Oslo is no worse (Stockholm is a bit behind). The focus on seasonal products and simplicity produces splendid results, especially with cured or raw fish and meat. It is also very "lean" and healthy, unlike what many Scandinavians eat normally. Of course, prices are very high, but like with the rest of the Nordic model, this at least has the positive effect of directing competition to quality rather than price. And (thinking of labour process) I like the fact that the waiters and kitchen staff earn no less than me, speak many languages fluently, and don't need to beg for tips. Interestingly, they are mostly local: immigrants from low-wage countries remain in ethnic restaurants (but on one evening, when I addressed the waitress saying "sorry, I don't speak Norwegian", she smiled back "neither do I!"... she was from Brisbane). The most expensive item is alcohol (bottles of wine in Norwegian restaurants start at around 50 Euros), but again this removes from the market cheap & bad wines. Moreover, the nature of wine as near luxury has led to the commendable practice of offering also good wines by the glass at proportionate prices (1/5 of the bottle). It perfectly fits my "drink less, but better" principle - I'll always prefer spending €10 on a good glass than on a mediocre bottle.

ÖstermalmstorgJust to mention the best experiences: in Oslo, the Håndsverkeren ("craftworkers") on Kristian IV's Gate, for revised traditional norwegian food (excellent dessert of pickled apples) and microbrewery beer; Oro Baron Tordenskioldsgate (fish and deer); Tjuvholmen Sjømagasin(spectacular fish on the new fancy waterfront). In Stockholm, Rolfs Kökon Tegnérgatan (French-Nordic fusion - you can eat at the counter and watch what happens in the kitchen, which I love - whether in a little bar or at the Atelier de Joël Robuchon) and the traditional working-class beer hall Pelikan in the middle of Södermalm.

But the weirdest culinary experience was in Stockholm: a pizza with reindeer and lingonberries. If they knew it in Naples, they would laugh. But Nordic cuisine is no longer a laughing stock.

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 20, 2010

On sociopedia.isa's hack: how bad are publishing houses?

Follow-up to Göteborg & the remains of the Swedish model from Around Europe 2010-12

On the evening of the 13th of July I was, as from the blog entry, at Eddie Webster's reception and therefore not at the concomitant reception for the inauguration of sociopedia.isa, the on-line sociological encyclopedia. That reception was disrupted by a protest against publisher SAGE and the fact that sociopedia, an initiative of the International Sociological Association, will not be free for all, as sociological knowledge arguably should. The protest is described and explained in other blogs, e.g. by a Gothenburg's doctoral researcher.

Now, it happens that I like protests, don't particularly like publishers, but I am also the author of a sociopedia entry, who signed off the copyright to SAGE, and even a member of its editorial board. So I have a duty to explain what I think about it.

I was invited to join sociopedia, still an underground clandestine idea, by Michel Wieviorka (ISA president) in a private conversation in September 2007 in Zielona Gora, Poland, at the margins of the Polish Sociological Congress. I liked the idea of something in the wide gulf between wikipedia and a paper encyclopedia (a gulf where students tend to get lost) and accepted. The proposal had to be kept secret until confirmed that viable, in order to avoid burning it, and the aim was inaugurating at Gothenburg 2010. The idea proceeded quite slowly, as one can imagine given the size of the undertaking: we academics take years to write little articles, how can we write an encyclopedia in a few months? I can imagine that the technical difficulties pushed the ISA, towards the end, to turn to SAGE (who already publishes the ISA journal's Current Sociology) for help. Eventually the 13th July deadline was met, but with just 18 entries (the target was 50), including mine.

There is no doubt that this is a collective failure: ISA, who does not need SAGE for recognition, has not managed the job on time with its own resources. Michel Wieviorka, the promoter of the thing, did not attend the reception himself so I can only deduct that he was not so enthusiastic himself. But I have also to admit that if I had been asked to do the editing job SAGE did, I would not have done it. I don't have the time to edit this blog, imagine sociopedia entries. Editorial work is something that, within division of labour, we have grown used to leave to private companies. So if we criticise sociopedia for being restricted-access, then we should do the same for Current Sociology, or Work, Employment and Society (also a SAGE journal, of which I am on the editorial board but I have never seen protests that it isn't for free - although I heard complaints on specific publisher's policies), or any other journal, given that nowadays the print copies are rather redundant and we could do it all for free on the internet.

In the specific case, the protest is therefore a little unfair: not just sociopedia, but most academic publications come from public bodies but are 'sold out' to the devil publishers. Yet the broader issue it raised, about copyright and commodification of (publicly-funded) knowledge in the internet era is a real one. So any attempt at opening spaces for decommodified knowledge is welcome, even if we can't burn publishers down (yet). Some little heroes are already starting the work of free-access on-line journals - and let me mention as example, again, Eddie Webster thanks to his new Global Labour Journal.

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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