SOCIAL ENGINEERING: Builders, race biologists and idealists

03/13/2015 11:40

One night, my ninety three-year old mother fell down in the kitchen. Somewhat dizzy she had grabbed hold of the pantry door, which came loose and fell over her, she plunged into the stove. After I had hastened down from the upsatirs bedroom I found her lying on the floor, with the large door ontop of her. As usual, she did not complain and didn´t want me to call for help, though she could not walk by herself and her injured leg pained.

I managed to tuck her into bed. Since her pain had not ceased in the morning I feared that she had broken her leg and called for an ambulance. The emergency team appeared after less than half an hour. They were amazingly efficient and professional; writing down all essential information - how and when my mother had fallen, what medicines she took, her personal data, asking me to pack toiletries and reading material, all while they took blood samples, checked theblood pressure, etc. What impressed most was how easy they handled the situation, their kindness, and the calm and enlightening information they provided. They brought with them necessary material and a hospital bed, lifted up my mother to the transportable bed and brought her into the ambulance.

Soon I was sitting beside the driver, conversing with him while he drove to the hospital in Kristianstad, some 30 kilometers from Hässleholm. I heard how my mother talked to and laughed with the nurse behind us. She was as clear in the head and positive as she usually is. During the trip, the ambulance driver told me about his profession, which he enjoyed and had been engaged with during more than twenty five years. He told me that the tasks of an ambulance crew had become increasingly specialized and that it now was up to them to do a lot of testing and pretreatments before they brought the patient to the hospital, to shorten the waiting time at the emergency department. Accordingly, they had to follow as set of clearly defined procedures while addressing a femur fracture, which my mother was suffering from.

What fascinated me most during our conversation was when the driver told me how much time they had to devote to caring for drug addicts and victims of beatings and maltreatment. He assumed that such cases worsened with every year. The misery common to many people was much worse than people generally believed; time and time again he had to pick up the same fatalities. It happened that he had been instrumental in saving  the life of a drug addict, only to meet him just a couple of days later at the liquor store and later in the evening pick him up again, after he had been knocked unconscious outside a tavern.

- The worst is the children, how they forced to grow up in the squalor surrounding drug addicts and petty criminals. It´s horrible. Some environments defy any attempt at description. What bothers me the most is how abused such children are. So utterly defenseless. How they become damaged for life.

He talked about parallel worlds, almost completely separated from each other; prior to becoming an ambulance driver he could not have imagined that such places existed close to his home.

We arrived at the emergency casualty department at Kristianstad´s regional hospital where we were met with the same efficiency and kindness. My mother had surgery and now finds herself in a rehabilitation ward. A bright and clean place where the food is tasty and the staff friendly and accommodating. I have seen hospitals in other parts of the world, especially in rural Africa and Latin America, thereby my impression of Swedish health care becomes almost surreal – the purity, the modernity, the friendly efficiency. Everything an essential part of the People´s Home constructed during the twentieth century. A social system that intends to take care of each and every one, excluding no one, at least not to such an extent I had witnessed at some locations outside of Sweden.

It was this that Gustav Möller who had been instrumental in the build-up of the welfare system. I mentioned him in my last blog entry as one of the Social Democratic Party's most important ideologues and how he busied himself with the build-up of education and social security, considering them as essential building blocks for a prosperous society.  

Gustav Möller was born 1884 in Malmö, the biggest town in southern Sweden. His father was a blacksmith and died in typhoid fever before Gustav became one year. His mother supported the family by washing clothes for others and cleaning staircases, she died of tuberculosis when Gustav was fourteen years old. They lived at Tallgatan, considered as one of the most miserable addresses in the city. In a newspaper article Möller wrote about his childhood street:

Tallgatan in Malmö was dead end-street, blocked by a high plank, outside of which were fields and vegetable gardens. There were only seven properties, all two storey houses. It went under the nick name Tinker Street, suggesting that it was a den of thieves. It was said that farmers from southern Skåne [the southernmost and most prosperous county of Sweden] hurried by with their horse-drawn carts as fast as they could, out of fear of being assaulted as they entered the city by the Southern Suburban Street on their way to the marketplace [...] A neighboring man and a woman were identified as socialists; they lived together as an unmarried couple. This and their political beliefs made people regarding them with some timidity, even tinged with hidden fears. Longer had the labor movement not come in the 1890s, than in this proletarian street, where poverty characterized every inhabitant, except baker Pålsson, we considered a couple of socialists as a strange aberration and a potential danger to all of us.

It was not unusual that early social democratic politicians emerged from poor circumstances and worked their way up through the class society, even being able to study at university and become influential politicians. In a biography of Möller, the authors noted that:

His mother's difficult life and untimely death turned him into a politician. [...] The images were a reminder: Bernhard and the mother had not been allowed to live their lives in a happy, rewarding manner; they had constantly been forced to struggle through hard times. Such fates had to be prevented.

Bernhard was Gustav Möller's older brother who  left for the US where he toiled and died of cancer before the brothers could meet again.

Not long after the Social Democrats´ victory in the 1932 elections, when Gustav Möller had been appointed as Minister of Social Security, he was visited by Uno Åhrén, radical architect and co-author of the manifesto accept. Åhrén came in company with Gunnar Myrdal, newly appointed professor and later Nobel laureate in economics. Åhrén and Myrdal suggested that Gustav Möller would give them a mandate to conduct an investigation and appoint a committee to resolve the depressing Swedish housing standards and thereby initiate a thorough process of modernization of the entire society. Möller was averse to the two enthusiasts and Myrdal later wrote that:

In the two of us, he probably saw species of a kind that an accomplished politician from the working class had been accustomed not to take seriously. Young idealists from the intellectual upper class without any practical experience.

Myrdal and Åhrén were nevertheless not hampered but immediately sought the support of the Minister of Finance, Ernst Wigforss, who was persuaded and promised to provide the necessary financial backing. A year later, Gustav Möller contacted Åhrén and Myrdal and explained "with a sly smile" that the Government finally had decided to establish a committee called Social Housing Inquiry and that he expected Åhrén and Myrdal to come up with a proposal concerning Swedish cities' future housing provisions. It was the starting shot for a Social Democratic housing policy that would characterize Swedish society for decades to come.

That same year, Gunnar Myrdal and his wife Alva rented a cottage among the Norwegian mountains, where they spent their summer hiking and writing a book that would drop like a bomb on the Swedish public debate – Kris i befolkningsfrågan, “Crisis in the Population Question”.

What Alva and Gunnar Myrdal achieved appeared as a miracle, turning them into the notorious "couple Myrdal, who turns everything upside down." They seemed to accept what conservative forces had preached for several years, namely that the once healthy, Swedish people was in the process of weakening, while population decline was disastrous, but instead of falling into the brown trap by recommending Nazi-influenced policies based on coercion and dictatorship, the Myrdal couple went in a diametrically opposite direction, stating that:

The population issue has turned into the strongest argument for a profound and radical socialist transformation of society.

Alva and Gunnar Myrdal did not hesitate to criticize their opponents as being unscientific, less talented than themselves, and even dishonest. According to them it was nothing more than idiotic rambling to go on about the "good old times" and imagine that it would be possible to prevent a healthy sex life and women's right to their freedom and their bodies. Trying to outlaw contraception would be both ineffective and contrary to Swedish families' legitimate demands for freedom, respect and love. Instead of imposing a top-approved "morality" on the working classes, it was high time to ventilate a society that had become antiquated and unhealthy, to create a sound population and equal opportunities for every citizen, woman and man. The up-growing generation would be offered better schools, workers and employees had to receive decent working conditions and all Swedes a housing fit for human beings.

Instead of preaching morals and threatening transgressors with punishment, policy makers should stimulate broad social reforms in support of women's and children's rights and opportunities. Why would the Swedish people bring more children into the world if the majority of them were being forced to reside in substandard housing, with one room and a small kitchen, and generally without their own bathroom? For many workers living conditions remained miserable, income was not sufficient for obtaining the necessities of life. In such conditions, what´s the use of giving birth to children? When women are forced to choose between slaving at home or be a childless laborer, or office worker?

Crisis in the Population Question emitted the same boundless optimism and cocksure confidence as accept, the radical architects´ manifesto. Alva and Gunnar Myrdal thought they knew so much, even how the future would look like. Their belief in reason's final victory was rock solid. They wrote that the entire Swedish community structure was facing a momentous transition from a "pre-capitalist tradition" to a "more systematically organized socialist ethnic community built on the broadest possible democratic foundation.”

To allow such a society to emerge an exemplary "human material" was required, created and bred through a free, strong and healthy social system. Each individual had to be guaranteed the opportunity to freely choose her/his life and adapt to the requirements a new era. Almost all reforms that eventually came to characterize the Swedish welfare state seems to have been prescribed in Crisis in the Population Qustion, but it was mainly the personal tone, the concrete proposals and the firm conviction that the authors knew exactly what women, men and kids really demanded and needed that gave the book its great impact.

Criticism of Crisis in the Population Question was vehement; it was mainly conservative and religious forces that played havoc with Myrdals´ controversial book. What most upset their adversaries was the couple´s plea for women's freedom, that childcare should be a governmental and/or a municipal commitment and that contraception should be freely accessible to everyone. Nevertheless, what was hardly mentioned were the opinions that now are considered to be the most controversial, even outrageous, namely the proposed means to deal with “labor incompetent, immoral or mentally deficient individuals”, who drain the treasury and/or transmit genetic and socially damaging disabilities and characteristics and therefore must be limited. The Myrdal couple assumed that the best manner to deal with such “incurable” individuals would probably be to sterilize them.

That Gustav Möller finally accepted Gunnar Myrdal and Uno Åhréns plans for an overhaul of the Swedish housing policy and far-reaching social engineering was not so remarkable. Myrdal was an economist and felt that the traditional ideologiesand their struggle for power was now passé; it was high time to apply efficient and practical methods to serve the public good. In the journal Spectrum, he wrote in 1932:

This new socio-political ideology carries within itself strong, radical and somewhat revolutionary possibilities. It is intellectualistic and coldly rationalist; while the old approach, which still lingers, was considerably sentimental [...] It is largely exempt from liberal brake pads. [...] It is pertinent. Its romanticism is that of an engineer.

The Myrdal couple described in frightening terms, abundantly substantiated by statistics and scientific studies, how Sweden had fallen into apathy and poverty, where half of all children lived in overcrowded, poor housing, curbing their physical and mental growth. The guilt for to this sad state of affairs rested with conservative and religious reactionaries, who argued that all change was evil, that families were dissolved if morals evaporated, a current moral decadence was aggravating women´s and children's already precarious situation.

As early as 1920, Gustav Möller claimed that a "practical" approach to development had to be adopted. It is not enough to overthrow oppressive power structures; opponents to democracy had to realize that a general prosperity benefits everyone. One should not limit people's opportunities, it slows the progress, while cooperation and research "improves the general well-being", openness and growth should be applied to all aspects of society, not coercion and limitations:

Any production unit must be utilized in such a way that even greater benefits can be gained from it, capitalists have so far not managed to to do that, at least not in such a way that it benefits the entire society. [...] It is rational organization, the creation of a higher form of production, which will lead the socialization process towards its higher purpose.

The labor movement should not act like a Robin Hood by robbing from the rich and give the spoils to the poor, instead all forces had to be united and maximized in such a way that the entire pie could grow bigger. Agrarian Sweden was dying, its means of production were becoming obsolete and emitted a stench of decay and neglect. The author Ludvig "Lubbe" Nordström wanted to get rid of the reek from a crumbling Sweden. He was annoyed by the Swedish Tourist Board´s brochures with their pictures of picturesque chalets and old churches. Lubbe wanted to demolish the famous Old Town in Stockholm and instead of old, reeking cottages, he wanted to pay tribute electricity works and modern ironworks. On behalf of the Swedish Radio, he made a reporting tour through the entire kingdom, describing what he called the old Shit-Sweden, which in his opinion had to be cleared away as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Nordström's welfare utopia was clinically clean and highly efficient, without ornamentation and lively coloration. The praise of sunsets was exaggerated, abundance of colors a monstrosity:

Grey! It's the foremost modern color. Two things exist in the modern world, stronger than others they mirror a progressive mentality: railway bridges and warships, the most beautiful objects a modern eye can behold.

The intellectual elite displayed a radiant energy, high ambitions and almost feverish activities. It is amazing what perseverance and ambition Alva and Gunnar Myrdal seemed to radiate. Alva plunged herself with heart and soul into the radical architects' activities in order to change the Swedes living space. Poverty and misery would be eliminated. Shit-Sweden wiped out forever.

In Rome we live near Garbatella, a neighborhood that was built during the 1920s. The blocks are now neglected and the houses dilapidated, but nevertheless it is a strange feeling to walk through the streets, especially at dusk, when calm descends over the place. The architecture of Garbatella was originally inspired by the English "garden cities", which meant that the houses would be for workers and lower officials, have good connections with and be relatively close to the city center and equipped with green spaces and vegetable gardens. Each block would have access to grocery stores, bars and restaurants, community- and child care centers. Originally the planners strived at providing a varied impression of the residential areas. A rectilinear street grid was avoided and the roads curved between the houses, which were adorned with subtle ornamentation, loggias and columns. At Garbatella´s center is a huge school building, a church, a theatre and sports facilities, including an indoor pool.

Initially, most houses were generally two-story houses, villinas, but when the Fascists began demolishig and rebuilding Rome's city center, crowds of people were transferred to quickly erected large, community houses, of which the most famous were in Garbatella. The planning of the area u nderwent drastic changes, green areas were reduced and the original plans to broadened the Tiber and deepen it all the way to the coast and build a port in Garbatella were shelved permanently. Enormous housing complexes were built in the form of so-called residential hotels, where the apartments had minimal kitchens, while the tenants had free access to large communal dining rooms; the apartments lacked bathtubs but unlimited admittance were granted to Garbatella´s communal swimming pool and sporting facilities. It was mainly families with several children who were accommodated in the “collective houses”. On the ground floor were child care centers, staffed by municipal employees.

Most famous of these "family hotels" were the three red, white and yellow buildings built in 1929 and jointly comprising more than a thousand people uprooted from the center of Rome. Their large dining rooms have vaulted ceilings, similar to the one arching over the ancient Pantheon and there were communal laundry and drying parlors. The central building, the "red house", had a medical reception, police, hairdressers and maternity clinics. However, kitchens and bathrooms were cramped and the Romans preferred La Mamma's or La Nonna´s cuisine and never warmed to the communal kitchens; odors, overcrowding and general squalor soon came to characterize the collective houses, which also became hotbeds for radical opposition against the Fascists, not only for the reason that the majority of the population consisted of workers and their families, but also due to the fact that the heads of households, in order to be granted a flat, had had to declare their loyalty to the Fascist Party. Strangely enough, the authorities seemed to have believed in these declarations and soon placed politically suspicious individuals among the supposedly faithful Fascist supporters within Garbatella´s co-housing. The idea was that the nonconformists would be supervised by their neighbors and eventually turn into good citizens. The effect was the opposite - public houses soon came to be regarded as centers of Communist and Socialist resistance. However, before that occured these experiments in Fascist co-habitation were proudly displayed to visiting potentates, not the least an impressed Mahatma Gandhi.

The architect Innocenzo Sabbatini had in 1927 erected the first "residential hotel" and soon his extensive housing complexes could be seen in several of Rome's suburbs, but the three buildings in Garbatella were the largest and the most famous ones.

I do not know if Alva Myrdal was aware of these extensive fascist efforts in co-housing for workers and single mothers, but she was to a high degree taken by the idea as a means to lighten housework for women. A speech Alva gave at the Professional Women´s Club in Stockholm in 1937 led to the establishment of a committee intended to support "a radical shift in family life towards collective household principles." Among other statements Alva said the following in her speech:

Take an apartment building where in their small kitchen, above and beside each other, housewives make the same meatballs, where small nurseries enclose lethargic and trapped small human beings - do such circumstances not call for more organized, collective solutions?

Alva Myrdal was particularly influential in a nationwide initiative for the construction of co-housing and she was initially supported by the architect and designer Sven Markelius, who was one of the authors of the accept manifesto. The idea was to mass-produce the building proposals that Markelius had made in 1932 and 1933 for two Stockholm suburbs, these were huge edifices with room for hundreds of families, though the Stockholm municipality, which owned the ground. found the projects to be too precarious. It was only when Markelius had been able to present a list of interested tenants to a private construction company that it agreed to build a co-housing building comprising with 57 apartments in an attractive area at a waterfront.

It was an elegant building where access to natural light and attractive panoramas were maximized, while angled windows and balconies minimized insight from neighbors. The apartments were small, but common areas were spacious and well proportioned; there was a restaurant, a central kitchen and a children's section on the ground floor. On the roof terrace was a large terrace with a paddling pool, a sun deck, sandpit and several showers. Tenants could get help with the cleaning of their apartments; every floor had a cleaning lady assigned and every apartment had a laundry chute connected to a manned washing facility. If you did not want to take your meals in the restaurant you could have it prepared for you and sent up to your flat by a dumbwaiter. The house provided permanent service staff around the clock. In 1938, 21 people served the tenants. The child day-care center was managed by a professional child psychologist, with psychoanalytic training and there were another psychoanalyst living in the building, as well as a medical doctor, both making their services available to tenants.

Those who chose to live in this public housing were a rather exclusive group of people. Sven Markelius both lived in the house and had his studio there and so did several other prominent architects and some artists. Other celebrities were, for example, the radical cartoonist Bertil Almquist, who every week for 35 years drew and wrote in, during the War Nazi tinted and later Social Democratic, Aftonbladet a popular daily political cartoon page called On the Wallpaper. Almquist also wrote songs and the witty, cleverly illustrated books about The Hedenhös Children telling stories about a Stone Age family that long before the Flintstone family invents things and travel around in a Neolithic world that has a great deal in common with our modern times. As a kid I devoured these books again and again. It was Almquist who during World War II created the very popular image and slogan En svensk tiger, as part of a campaign to prevent espionage. In Swedish svensk can mean both the adjective "Swedish" and the noun "Swede" while tiger can mean either the noun for the animal or the present tense of the verb tiga, "to keep silent", giving the poster the double meaning "a Swedish tiger" or "a Swede keeps silent".  

In the house also lived Erland Hofsten, a statistician who for many years hosted Swedish Televion´s election nights. Erland's father was Nils von Hofsten, Rector of Uppsala University and between 1945 and 1953 Chairman of the National Institute for Racial biology. Erland Hofsten´s neighbor was Skå-Gustav Jonson, a highly controversial and legendary physician who introduced human care for young criminals. Skå-Gustav was married to Esther Lamm, daughter of an eminent Jewish literary scholar, who was member of the Swedish Academy.

At one point Alva Myrdal had in her despair contacted Skå-Gustav and asked for his advice about what to do with her “vicious” son Jan (who eventually was to grow up as one of Sweden´s most famous authors). Skå-Gustav offered that Jan could stay for a while with him and his family. Jan Myrdal much later wrote that he had enjoyed living with Skå-Gustav and his family, but I do not know whether his conduct towards his mother got any better. Skå-Gustav also propagated for family planning and sex education, often in collaboration with Elise Ottosen-Jensen, called Ottar, who was a great and well-known idealist, founder of the pioneering RFSU, Swedish Association for Sexuality Education. Ottar rented the studio apartment next to Skå-Gustav's family and during the war several political refugees from the continent gathered in her one-room apartment.

With "sex radical" tenants like Skå-Gustav and Ottar and other Social Democrats, many reactionaries considered the exclusive collective house to be a nest for subversive rakes. In a political sense this was to true to some extent. During the War, a group of high-profile anti-Nazis met regularly in Sven Markelius´ apartment. He was president of the association Kulturfront, Cultural Front, which published a magazine with the same name and mustered intellectuals to confront Nazi-propaganda in Sweden and neighboring countries.

It was neither lavish co-housing like the one on Norr Mälarstrand in Stockholm (nowadays a national heritage site that still have tenants), nor giant complexes like those in Garbatella, that Alva Myrdal, Sven Markelius and builder Olle Engkvist came to reproduce at several locations in Sweden, but simpler housing facilities built after the same service principle and often tailored for "single women with, or without children". The influential builder Olle Engkvist who was member of Åhrén´s and Myrdals´s Social Housing Inquiry and collaborator with the architects behind accept, was also a good friend of the Swedish Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson, who moved into one of the functionalist townhouses Engkvist had erected in Stockholm.

It was not only co-housing that Alva and Gunnar Myrdal wanted to support. Together with their architect friends they were also influential when it came to initiating and monitoring a program of so-called barnrikehus, meaning housing for families with many children. The investment in barnrikehus was a direct consequence of the Social Housing Inquiry that had determined that 30 percent of all children under 15 years of age were living in overcrowded apartments.

Housing for families with many children was built for the "less fortunate". The initiative included favorable governmental loans to builders and subsidies for families who moved in. Contributions to large families meant that a family with three children could get up to thirty percent rent reduction. With an additional child the contribution increased by 10 percent, up to five children when the maximum rent reduction was 50 percent.

Municipality involvement in housing initiatives for families with many children was successful and the Government decided that in the future municipalities should have the main responsibility for urban planning and the construction of subsidized buildings.

After the overcrowding largely had been removed in the years following the War the availability of housing gradually became worse again and in 1965 the Government decided to remedy the growing crisis by supporting the construction of 100 000 homes per year. The goal was to build one million homes in ten years and once more eliminate overcrowding while im proving housing standards. 

The goal was reached, but many of the construction companies involved in the venture departed from the quality standards set by the idealistic architects of the thirties, like apartments had to be built in durable materials and in such a way that each room was equipped with large windows to guarantee availability of natural light. Within the Million Program inexpensive materials and prefabricated building elements were used to a high degree, as well efforts were made to minimize labor costs and “non-essential” components. The often tall houses were generally supplied with just one elevator shaft per staircase and narrow fire escapes, while lower buildings often had exterior corridors along their sides, mostly due to the fact that Government subsidies only covered living areas and not stairwells and other building details outside of the apartments. The style became known as Brutalism and also characterized public buildings; which were either one storey barracks or heavy, monstrous concrete complexes where corridors and culverts had low ceilings while pipes, air ducts and cables run visibly along the ceilings.

Previously, efforts had been done to integrate residential buildings with their surrounding nature, meaning that copses, hills and freestanding trees were spared and became part of the residential environment. Despite their reforming zeal, most of the influential modernist architects participating in accept, or being inspired by its concepts, revered nature. For example, the  acclaimed Gunnar Asplund had during his Itallian travels been impressed by how classical architecture interacted with the landscape. Writing about Greek colonnade temples he noticed that it was their position in the landscape that underlined their beauty. In his diary he wrote: "Temples need height, the time spent to get there is increasing the veneration they inspire." Like in Garbatella in Rome, early Swedish modernist urban planners often tried to blend different building styles and interleaved large residential complexes with smaller units, like villas and townhouses.

Unfortunately, the Million Program created large, sterile, impersonal and even hostile environments. Huge commercial complexes were allowed to occupy the center of the cities, while vast parking spaces and ugly industrial barracks spread like the plague and old buildings were ruthlessly demolished, instead of being renovated. In 2010, about 650 000 of the dwellings erected in connection with the Million Program were in need of renovation.

For their part, the Myrdals did not choose to live in the co-housing they paid homage to. Together with Sven Markelius, Alva planned an ultra-modern villa where her ideas about a warm family life and fruitful, intellectual cooperation would be set into practice. A nursery for her three children, who each one got her/his own room adjacent to the nursemaid´s room, was planned on the lower floor together with a big kitchen, a dining corner and a large family room. All rooms, including the kitchen had access to the large garden. On the upper floor Alva and Gunnar lived in seclusion with two large bedrooms connected with a sliding door, there were also two spacious offices, one “archive room” a bright "American bathroom" and a large terrace. Everything was custom designed - furniture, utensils, carpets - and on the walls hung exclusive art by Swedish and foreign artists, among the latter a drawing by Oskar Kokoschka.

Early one morning, the little Jan Myrdal was sitting alone on the newly polished parquet floor in the living room, he was five years and would soon be six. Jan was all alone. A pale light was streaming in through large windows. He would like to go sliding on the parquet, but should probably avoid doing so. His parents considered him to be a “problematic” child. On the cold floor were six black chairs with yellow leather cushions, they looked as cold and bare as the rest of the room. The chairs were designed by Sven Markelius and once Jan had peed on them.

This is the introduction to one of Jan Myrdal's autobiographies in which he pours bile on his parents. Self-centered persons who according to their son rarely were honest, hysterically conscious about their formal appearance, nursing an image of Social Democratic splendor that they had created for themselves and they wanted to convey to the Swedish public. According to Jan Myrdal, his mother admonished him:

-  Never tell anyone anything about us. Never talk to people about the family. You know that. Never!

But he has done exactly that, in book after book. Jan Myrdal writes that during his childhood he was often left out. His parents were ashamed of him, they considered him to be far too chubby, rebellious and difficult to master. He did not fit into their world. A dream world where Alva was a doting mother, an expert on parenting and family life, cool and untouchable.

Like so many other children Jan fantasized that he was a foundling:

What I experienced as a child was that my parents kept me away and did not really wanted to know me; they were not deliberately treating me bad. I was simply an error.

Perhaps it is not so uncommon among influential reformers to regard themselves as essentially different from those that they want to reform. Alva Myrdal, an expert on children and parenting, longed after repeated miscarriages intensely after having children of her own, yet when she received two girls and a boy, she left them alone most of the time in the care of a beloved nanny. Alva´s children were not brought to any of the collective child care centers that she so warmly advocated:

In my description of collective housing I have not yet mentioned the biggest complication - the children. In a private household, with two over-worked spouses children are really a major complication. What happens to the children in such homes is best not to dwell upon. Whether they are being pushed around by a nanny, or left to care for themselves in the street or where ever: it is definitely not any constructive upbringing.

Alva had difficulties in establishing a really good relationship with her own children. She arranged a family home where she and her husband could live a life separated from their offspring.

Like Alva, Gunnar fought for radical reforms to improve all citizens' standard of living, education, and opportunities to participate in democratic decision-making, but he still regarded himself as some kind intellectual aristocrat and was quick to characterize opponents as idiots. Such behavior may have developed from the fact that reformers like Alva and Gunnar became victims of ruthless scrutiny, resentment and even hatred, often taking the form of personal attacks.

People who examine sexual morality may easily be characterized as sluts or rakes, while those who engage in family policy may be singled out as particularly bad mothers or fathers. Accordingly, victims of slander may easily create a mindset characterized by "us and them". Such people may cease to be real fellow beings; they are abstracting the world, as in a song in the musical Hair:

How can people be so heartless?
How can people be so cruel?
Easy to be hard, easy to be cold

How can people have no feelings?
How can they ignore their friends?

Easy to be proud, easy to say no.

And especially people who care about strangers
Who care about evil and social injustice
Do you only care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend? I need a friend.

Like his parents Jan Myrdal eventually developed into an expert on everything and a very public figure who could not refrain from mercilessly criticizing, in his opinion, his callous, role playing and manipulative parents. Jan who presents himself as a victim of his parents' lack of empathy, may nevertheless demonstrate an incomprehensible cold and cynical attitude towards, for example, the victims of Pol Pot´s  and Mao's homicidal regimes, dictators and mass murderers whom he has met in person and defended vehemently. Like his parents, Jan Myrdal has a tendency to make the reality abstract, while he regards himself as a highly skilled and empathetic human being, whose life and opinions are exemplary.

Jan Myrdal offers in one of his books a picture of his mother as a manipulative actress who occasionally intensively tries to hide her own, not always so bona fide motives. Alva once surprises Jan with stealing meatballs out of the refrigerator and explains to him that if he were bound to steal he should do so in such a way that he does not become detected. She tells her son to eat another meatball and then rearranges the remaining meatballs in such a way that the theft is not noticeable: "Now it all looks natural. Now, no one can see you've taken meatballs without permission." Jan reacts with disgust, "the taste of the meatball turned into a cold and oily film in my mouth".

Most analyses, proposals and approaches presented in Crisis in the Population Question are laudable, logic and practically realizable. The starting point is strictly community-oriented. The proposed reforms are obviously intended to benefit every citizen and are therefore highly commendable. All people have the right to be treated equally. One approach, for example, is the couple's description of health care, where they, like the Italian Fascists have a tendency to regard illnesses and weaknesses as primarily socially conditioned phenomena, being due to poor environment, poverty, poor nutrition and above all ignorance about basic rules for hygiene. The remedy was to provide a comprehensive community planning to achieve a healthy lifestyle. The system of private practitioners is hopelessly outdated; it prevents medical doctors from applying a rational, community-oriented approaches to their activities:

They are tuned to individual concerns, but do only imperfectly discern social causes and effects; issues they rarely perceive as connected with their medical calling. They are socially limited [...] doubtless associated with the fact that a medical doctor by the prevailing system mainly is considered to be a private entrepreneur, rather than a servant of society.

Wise, but at the same time, chilly words. The Myrdal couple rarely mentions individuals in their text, but they frequently write about categories such as "the better-off classes", "working women", "trained people", "the population stock", "folk material", "waste percent of individuals", "mildly, mentally deficient", "body and mind defective", "highly unfit individuals," etc. People are defined collectively.

It is in such contexts, the Myrdal the text becomes disagreeable. Their beliefs in technology, in experts and in the possibility for callous logic to intervene in people’s private lives, appear as both trusting and frightening. When they write about light, freedom and hygiene it is unfortunately not only workplaces´ and family homes´ health and vigor they are referring to, but also the fact that they want to improve the entire Swedish population. They advocate eugenics and by doing so, they actually find themselves within a Social Democratic ideology that was common at the time. When it in 1921 supported the establishment of a National Institute of Racial Biology the Swedish Parliament was the first democratically elected parliament in the world to give legitimacy to human eugenics  Among others, the Social Democrat leader Hjalmar Branting had signed the motion that led to the institute's foundation. Seemingly unchallenged could a prominent Social Democrat like Arthur Engberg make statements such as: 

We have the good fortune to possess a race, which is still quite unspoiled, a race that is carrier of very high and very good qualities.

We react with doubt and discomfort when we find that individuals, or political orientations, which we admire and sympathize with, expose opinions or actions that abhor and surprise us. In a worst case scenario, we become blinded by our respect for mentors and role models and start defending them, or even reshape their thinking and actions in a positive direction. One such example is when Queen Silvia of Sweden faced revelations that her beloved father had benefitted from of a persecuted Jew´s precarious situation, denied the facts and stated that it was impossible that a good man like her father could have been such a crook and instead presented Walther Sommerlath´s distressing behavior as an heroic effort to help a person in need. Silvia's actions were understandable and not at all unusual for any of us, and yet it is far from being virtuous - we should recognize fallacies and reprehensible acts as such, even if they have been committed by ourselves, or by people close to us. However, acts and motives might be more understandable, but not forgiven or mollified, if related to the Zeitgeist that prevailed when the iniquities were committed.

The young Social Democracy was characterized by a high degree of hope for the future and a firm belief in science. Dynamics and change was the slogan for a brightening future. Charles Darwin had in his The Origin of Species, published in 1859; presented compelling evidence that all species through a process he called natural selection had evolved from a common origin. Karl Marx had in Das Kapital´s first part in 1867 demonstrated that the capitalist mode of production had its inherent contradictions and declared his belief in its historically transitory nature.

While these men, who already during their lifetime had become famous, wrote their great works an Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, labored in his convent´s garden, planting and studying 29 000 pea plants. By crossing different pea variants Mendel was able to determine how properties are inherited through genes randomly combined in the offspring. Much of Mendel's terminology is still used, like dominant and recessive genes. He published his findings in 1865, but it was not until the early 1900s that it was realized how revolutionary they had been and genetics became a science which fitted excellently into the budding worship of science and change. Young radicals became devoted to scientific theories that demonstrated the ability to change not only the community, but people as well. An unbridled optimism that maybe could be likened to the "Space Madness" I and many kids like me were affected by in the 1960s, when astronomy and spaceflights appeared to herald an exciting new future made possible by scientific progress.

By the fin de siècle it was assumed that science would create healthier and stronger people, something that two new disciplines were researching; namely social anthropology and social medicine. Scientists tried to establish connections between race, social status, and diseases, good or bad manners. Perceptions that most scientists from the two disciplines seemed to share were concerns about industrialism and urban life, while some had a weak spot for "traditional life patterns" and peasant societies. Of importance for an emerging eugenic ideology was the writer Arthur de Gobineau´s  opinion that human races were endowed with different and specific talents and that the white race was far superior to the others. The result of his speculations - which generally were considered to be correct, though unproven and  "unscientific" – was the conclusion that miscegenation, or "bastardization" as Gobineau called it, inexorably led to a deterioration of the race, to population decline, and ultimately to the destruction of mankind.

Scientists assumed that Mendel's genetic theories could be applied to Gobineau´s theories and studies were carried out to detect whether "bastardization" led to social deterioration. Two surveys from 1913 were considered to be especially valuable since they proved that Mendel inheritance principles could be applied to humans. Eugen Fischer's study of "half-breeds" in German West Africa demonstrated the Mendelian laws validity when it came to hair and eye color. The conclusions Fischer made about the impact of "bastardization" on the "quality" of a human specimen turned out to be scientifically untenable, especially since like so much race biological research it had been predisposed by researcher´s bias. The sad state of the German colony was certainly not the result of any "bastardization" but due to what has been described as the twentieth century's first genocide, when 80 000 of an original population of 100 000 Hereros between 1904 and 1907 had been wiped out by German colonial authorities.

The same year that Fischer announced the results of his study Herman Lundborg published a survey how an inherited form of epilepsy had spread in isolated areas of the Swedish district of Blekinge. This study also proved to be important for the determination of Mendelian inheritance laws, but it was useless when it came to its conclusions about racial deterioration. Nevertheless studies like those of Fischer and Lundborg became instrumental when the  Government decided to implement eugenic research programs in Sweden. In 1922, Herman Lundborg became professor and director of the newly established National Institute of Racial Biology .

The importance modernists imparted on eugenics was proven by the fact that Lundborg was invited to the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition and at a pavilion called Kingdom of Sweden in several exhibition stands presented the latest advances in Swedish and international eugenics.

Lundborgs theories had a large impact in Sweden, his books, with titles such as Swedish Race Knowledge  and The West in Jeopardy obtained a large readership outside scientific circuits. Alongside his research and writing Lundborg traveled around the country with an exhibition about racial typology, sponsored by the cream of the crop of Swedish culture personalities, both left and right wingers. In their large selection of photographs the exhibitions included a photo gallery of "deficient people material", like "gypsies, tattare [hard to find an English synonym, maybe “tinkers”, or “pikey” are equivalents], vagabonds and criminals".

Even radical leftists appeared to be in agreement with conservative patriots that birth control must be applied by all means possible, not least sterilization, yes - even euthanasia. Several well-known politicians from the Social Democratic left, like Zeth Höglund and Hinke Bergegren, considered that it was a waste to care for “inferior creatures”. Zeth Höglund wrote in Stormklockan, “The Warning Bell”:

It is not only irresponsible and criminal to give life to human beings that already in the womb are inferior and doomed to a miserable existence; the class struggle is weakened by the creation of this cumbersome baggage of redundant people.

The battle cry of several radicals and early feminists like Elise Ottosen-Jensen was: "Better love without children, than children without love!" and economists like the influential and unusually pugnacious Kurt Wicksell pointed to the high costs for keeping people unfit for work and social interaction alive. Something the former Social Democratic Prime Minister Hjalmar Branting stressed when he in 1926 wrote an obituary in memory of his friend:

[Wicksell] supported the view that failed human specimens, such as incurable idiots, should rather be painlessly killed than kept alive as a burden to others and themselves.

In the case of sterilization, and even euthanasia, cultural radicalism was in accordance with race biologists and other eager supporters of human engineering. Mankind should be groomed while weak specimen had to be weeded. An opinion that was not only hailed by physical anthropologists and Nazis, but also by cultural figures like Ellen Key (author of the international bestseller The Century of the Child) and doctors and educators like Anton Nyström (an early advocate for the decriminalization of homosexuality).

Director for the National Institute of Racial Biology was at the time of Myrdals´ Crisis in the Population Question their friend Gunnar Dahlberg and notions about  improvement of the "human stock" occasionally sneaks into the spouses´ otherwise clearly written and sensible book. For example:

Closest at hand is obviously a radical culling of highly unfit individuals, something that may be achieved through sterilization. [...] Ideally, one would thus be able to eradicate all forms of physical and mental inferiority in the population, sensory dullness and insanity, physical illness and bad character traits.

A sterilization law was introduced in 1934, the same year Crisis in the Population Question was published. The law gave authorities and medical expertise the right to sterilize people "with extensive mental illness, mental deficiency, other defects, or an antisocial lifestyle". The already murky criteria were often arbitrary. In practice many women from lower social strata sterilized on a random basis, it could be sufficient that a doctor judged them as promiscuous, or gypsies. Between 1935 and 1976, 60,000 Swedes were forcibly sterilized. Over 90 percent of the victims were women.

Nothing is perfect. The Social Democratic tribute to modernity as an effective tool for renewal processes has certainly accomplished miracles in Sweden and meant a lot to the growth of the wealth of the nation, but as we have seen, there were also some spanners in the works. Someone who early noticed that there were dangers hidden in rampant, blind optimism was the poet Sten Selander. He had been chosen to open the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition with a mighty festive cantata, which celebrated the city and modernity, it was set to music composed by church musician Otto Olsson and performed by a men's choir called The Swedish. Nevertheless, a year later Selander began to feel ambivalent about modernity and in response to the optimistic architect manifesto accept he wrote the book "Modern" (with quotes in the title).

Selander's book is a violent lamentation in which he attacked technology worship and machine cults. Although he writes with pathos he urges for calm and emphasizes that his book is written by "an ordinary person, who is not an expert, but has had some time and opportunity to reflect a little more than most others on some current problems." Selander writes that through his veneration of unlimited possibilities man runs the risk of becoming obsessed with quantities, of the desire for things that are bigger, better and more efficient. Speed ​​blindness can result in uninhibited exploitation of nature; our insatiable appetite leads us away from one another and the joy we may find by appreciating the moment and immerse ourselves in the calm of dolce far niente, sweet idleness. "Every billboard and ad is proof their own uselessness." "Human dignity is judged by the figures in the tax calendar." Everything seems to focus on empty, superficial accomplishments and full immersion in our desires; sports, dance, stock market speculation, entertainment - "a constantly expanded mass, constantly heightened speed, constant growth, perpetual new records." Everything is measured, weighed, assessed and valued. "People tear each other apart like wild beasts in their struggle for power, money and women," our souls are suffocated, while our bodies are crushed by stress, drugs and alcohol. Nature has been turned into a commodity and is currently irretrievably destroyed by unsuspecting and ruthless exploitation.


Proletarian writer Harry Martinson, with his roots in rural poverty, industrial work and as a sailor, was milder tempered and affirmed both the development of technology and the value of nature. In 1939 he wrote: "We will live more freely in the future than now, becoming more mobile, more sensible. More significant. More of meditation plus motion in world space." He experienced how the world and life opened up, that the opportunities for a decent life were becoming viable, but he also nurtured a deep reverence for nature and pointed to the importance of always being focused on the individual, her needs and opportunities, while we try to harmonize our lives with nature and appreciate the miracles it offer us.

Apparently, nothing is entirely black and white; everything has unique shades of light and color. Nothing is simple. The world swirls around us. We are tossed back and forth between joy and sorrow. Maybe we are blinded by all impressions and forget the joys we have access to - friends, nature, music, books. We complain, are tormented and troubled, staring us blind on the dark spots of human existence and perceive not how much we have been given through the security and openness that modernism created for us.

Like when my mother fell in the kitchen and broke her femur, an incident that could have meant death for a poor, old woman in many countries around the world. But to us came an ambulance, with friendly and efficient staff, who brought my mother to a state-of-art equipped, clean and efficient hospital, where her injury quickly was remedied by technology´s latest achievements, while empathetic, professional people took care of her. Perhaps we should be grateful for what narcissistic, remarkable people like the Myrdal couple accomplished, along with several of their contemporaries, but this does not mean that we should ignore their mistakes. After all, they were people like us, for better or worse, and we live in a human society - for better or worse.

Naturally most sources for this blog entry are in Swedish, so I refer to the Swedish version of the text.



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In Spite Of It All, Trots Allt