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The Nordic Secret

For too long we have glibly relied on the so-called “free-market” to solve our intricate social challenges. We can now safely say it hasn’t worked.

At historical turning points societies have two stark choices: bloody revolution or an informed evolution. Few societies in history have achieved a peaceful transition but there is an exception to that rule…

In Scandinavia their secret was simple – you can’t do the external leadership and subsequent social change if you haven’t done the internal work on yourself.

Host Ross Ashcroft is joined by the co-author of The Nordic Secret and author of The Market Myth Tomas Björkman to reveal the secret as to why Scandinavia is always cited as the exemplar for a progressive modern society.

Whenever you see a report, it’s always the case that the Scandinavian countries – the Nordics – are in the top five – arguably the top three – for happiness, well-being. Until recently, all the socioeconomic indicators were going in the right direction. Tomas Bjorkman explains:

“I think we are in some respects losing it a little bit. It’s quite amazing given the fact that just a 150 years ago – even 100 years ago – we were very poor countries – among the poorest in Europe.

But then something happened. Just a few generations later we were up there, we were; rich, happy, democratic, industrial nations.”

Nordic Secret

Bjorkman claims that such a radical short-term transition has not been experienced anywhere else in the world unless accompanied by violent revolutions. “We managed to do that transition very rapidly and very peacefully”, says Bjorkman – a process he refers to as “our Nordic Secret.”

But what, and how beneficial, is it?

“There are many factors”, says Bjorkman. “We had already very early a high literacy rate; we had natural resources and a lot of things.” But in the view of the author, one reason had been overlooked among all others – Scandinavia’s century-long tradition of intellectual and political innovation.

This is reflected, says Bjorkman, in the Nordic nations’ ability to understand how the transition could best embody the socioeconomic interests of mass populations in democracies, as opposed to an elite minority in more authoritarian-style regimes.

From the ‘get-go’ Nordic intellectuals and politicians were clear they did not want the authoritarian leader model, but rather “were firmly committed to building democracy and they knew that the only way to build stable and strong democracies are to build them from bottom up”, says Bjorkman, who compares and contrasts the Nordic’s democratic approach to the kind of authoritarian form of transition undertaken by the UK and Germany.

In the case of the former, problem solving leading to transition also embodied a paternalistic aspect:

“Industrialization had already taken place 100 years earlier in the UK and also in Germany so they knew that we were looking to transform into a new society that encompassed the growth in urbanization and social movements”, says Bjorkman, who adds: “During these times of rapid societal transition they knew that most people start to look for an external authority, something to hold on to and to guide them through these rough times.”

The Nordics presence of mind in rejecting the authoritarian-paternalistic ‘quick-fix’ social-transformation approach of the British in favour of their own democratic path “was amazing”, says Bjorkman, adding: “We had some deep thinkers but also had help from the philosophical movements that were very much dominating Central Europe and Scandinavia.”

The mind is not a machine

It was these philosophical insights, argues Bjorkman, that provided the intellectual grounding to understanding the complexity of rapid societal change:

We needed to develop first of all our inner compass. We needed to find, and be grounded, in ourselves in order to do that. And that is a matter of consciousness development and development of our mind. All German philosophers of the time [eg Hegel/Marx] had reacted against the enlightenment view of the mind as a rational machine.”

Bjorkman continues:

“Our mind is not a machine. No, our mind is an organic system under lifelong development. So our consciousness, our awareness, is able to evolve during our lifetime. And in order for us to find this inner stability – find our inner compass – to be able to hold complexity and to find guidance, not from an outside source, but from an inside source. We need to work on our minds – from formation to realization – an organic process of how our mind is evolving during our life. That process can either be hindered or supported.”

Retreat centres

Needless to say, the Nordic’s supported it. They did this by opening up what Bjorkman calls “retreat centres” for personal inner development. “By the turn of the last century – 1900 – there were about 100 such retreat centres in Denmark, 75 in Norway and 150 in Sweden”, says Bjorkman – all of which targeted young adults. “They were relatively small centres with 20/30/40 participants. But it was made possible for the participants to stay there up to six months to really try to become inner directed and grounded in themselves. They also learned a bit about the new technology, modernity and societal development – the basic tools for civil society organization. You were not afraid of the changes that were happening all around you”, added the author.

At its height, 100 years ago, 10 percent of each cohort of young adults – mainly from working class and farming backgrounds – participated in one of these half year long retreats. 

Initially, they were privately-funded initiatives but then became state sponsored in which participants received a state grant. After leaving the retreat, young people were equipped with skills which enabled them to thrive in the world.

Soft skills

Such positive outcomes are in stark contrast to the experiences of young people in, for example, the UK. Young Brits might have a very good education or they might have been exposed to an education, but they don’t have the ‘soft skills’ resources available to them nor have they been taught it.

Bjorkman reiterates the importance of teaching ‘soft skills’ to young people: 

“Increasingly we are starting to realize that even in ‘normal’ education that is what we need to teach and learn because with the more and more rapid technological development that we see today we don’t really know what specific skills to teach our children. Today even if you learn how to program, in already 5 or 10 years we will not need any programmers – the algorithms will be writing programs much better than programmers. So then it’s really just up to developing these life skills, these soft skills. You need to stay open to this development [in order to make] sense of this increasingly complex world.

So sense making, and perspective taking – being able both to take other people’s perspective – but also look at problems from other academic discipline perspectives as well – are all important.”

Bjorkman returned to the ‘inner compass’ theme:

“In a rapidly moving world where people are constantly trying to fix an outside source of values, the emphasis should be much more on them becoming ‘inner directed’.  he says, adding that the development of empathy and compassion (circle of belonging) “towards the family, tribe, to the city; to the nation and the whole of the world”, are all equally as important.”  

Meaning and purpose

The ‘Nordic Secret Way’ gives people an opportunity to serve something on a grand scale as opposed to serving just themselves. “We humans need something like that to feel meaning and purpose. You can never find meaning and purpose just serving yourself. You need to serve something larger. It could be just family and friends. It doesn’t need to be the nation or the globe or the universe”, says Bjorkman.

“I also think that as you mature you find purpose in serving – again – greater and greater circles of belonging. And that’s a huge source of meaning and purpose which is what we need today. We see so many people completely lost in life. In Scandinavia we have traditionally very high suicide rates. I think that is because during the last decades we’ve been starved of meaning”, adds Bjorkman.

The retreats, on the other hand, gave people context, allowing them to place themselves within the wider story, both in space and in time. Arguably, never has the concept of the retreats been as relevant as they are today given that:

“We are, right now, in very turbulent times indicative of a ‘huge societal transition’. We are starting to realize more and more that the modern world, the modern way of thinking, the modern societal systems – that has served us so well for the last perhaps 200 years and that have given us this fantastic world of healthcare and choice – is coming to an end. We need to become conscious co-creators of a new world that needs to emerge, that wants to emerge”, says Bjorkman.

Paradigm shift

But that new world is dependent on a paradigm shift in terms, for example, of how economics is taught in universities to future generations of policy-makers, politicians, business leaders, journalists and lawyers. As Kate Raworth acknowledges, the current economic paradigm emerges from the textbooks of 1950 underpinned by the theories of 1850 upon which the current paradigm is based. They “are so out of date with blind spots that economists barely even go back and look at the roots of where these ideas came from. And so economics has just become a self fulfilling, a complete theorem unto itself which is taught as if it was the mantra to take up”, says Raworth.

This ‘neoliberal’ way of thinking in terms of the market and market economy is entrenched within the establishment and yet, as Bjorkman (a former banker and entrepreneur) acknowledges, “it is at the root of most of the problems we see today in the world.”

Given the failing system is built on sand, Bjorkman – who has been up close and personal with that paradigm – believes it is not helpful to apply this market mechanism to everything:

“That was one of the realizations. I was working as an investment banker for 20 years seeing the market as an extremely strong and useful tool mainly helping us to produce and allocate what could be called individual goods. But then of course all economists know – and you learn that at your first course at university. Economics 101 – that the market does not really work for public or collective goods. Neither does it work for what economists call ‘merit goods’ ( ie goods and services that you do not appreciate the value of until you have consumed them).

“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest  – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”

“We have started to believe”, says Bjorkman, “that the market can solve every human need where perhaps our most important human needs are either collective goods or married goods. An example of a collective good could be something like the societal culture. So perhaps you are not prepared to pay for that.”

Bjorkman continues:

“But just like with national defense, we are both dependent on this actually being provided for us. The most important example of a collective good where we are starting to realize that the market is not helpful is when it comes to the environment. We are all dependent on having clean air, clean waters and a functional ecosystem but it doesn’t really look like the market is helping us to provide this collective good.”

In fact, an inherent blind spot of this flawed economic system is its inability at recognizing the living planet. It also makes no mention of the unpaid caring work of parents nor of the commons ( ie a place where people come together to make something that they value whether it’s a neighbourhood garden on the corner of their block or Wikipedia online). As Kate Raworth says: “This leaves out three of the most essential and dynamic sources of our well-being. It is not going to set you up well to understand the economy. And those blind spots have come back to hit us.”

So the answer to our problems are not to be found in the market. On the contrary, ‘leaving it to the market’ is not only counter-productive in terms of human well-being and to the stability of society, but, as Bjorkman intimates, it negates ones own personal responsibility. Instead, the market is widely regarded in a fundamental ‘God-like’ sense, overseen by authoritarian figures.  

Bjorkman concurs that reformation is what’s required:

“Call it reformation, paradigm shift or that we need new glasses to see the world. The old enlightenment glasses that we have had were very helpful but now we need a new way to look upon ourselves, our society and the world as humans. What we are doing with our young children is that we are putting a specific sort of glasses on them. And of course it’s difficult to change glasses in mid life. It is possible but it is difficult. But what we definitely need to do is to provide the generations with new glasses and perhaps not throw away the old ones but complement them with more perspectives through which to see ourselves. One perspective is we are not the kinds of isolated individuals the enlightenment philosophers or the neoliberal economic paradigm wants us to be. We are much much more interconnected than we usually think. My happiness is very much dependent on your happiness and the wider circle. We have so many things that we are connected to on levels that we are not aware of.”

Bjorkman continues:

“The second perspective is that our mind is not a rational machine but an organic, complex system under life- long development. Until we take these two realizations and build them into our systems – build them into the market, build them into democracy, build them into society  – then we will not fix this.”

Heading in the right direction?

Bjorkman believes that rapid technological development is a key component to a positive outcome:

“We are rapidly approaching perhaps even a singularity that some people are talking about where technological development goes infinitely fast and that rapid technological development and rapidly shrinking world, that makes this crisis much more acute than I think most people realize. From that perspective it’s something that could happen within 10/20 years”.

“But on the other hand, given human nature”, says Bjorkman, “some sort of very big shifts in paradigms and understandings of ourselves and worldviews only take place between generations. It’s only so much shifting that we can do in mid-life and we will have to wait for new generations to come. So the question is. Okay, with this rapid need for change and the fact that we still perhaps need to wait for new generations to meet this.” 

The author is hopeful that we will manage the changes successfully, but adds a word of caution:

“This will not happen automatically. It is a bottom up process. But just like one hundred and fifty years ago we need to supply a structure and we need to allocate funds for this development to happen. So it’s a combination of top down allocation of resources and providing structures and then creating a lot of conscious co-creators. The mechanism that won’t allocate funds to this is the market.”

Instead, the allocation of funds will be driven by the collective good. The Nordic Secret is a good illustration of how this could be achieved.

“The Nordic Secret started with individual philanthropic initiatives seeing the need. But then fairly soon leading politicians were saying that this is actually where we need to allocate state resources for this to happen because this is a critical thing. And I think this very soon will also come up in the political discussions when we are looking at rapid technological development, AI, future of work and Universal Basic Income. We can’t decouple those discussions from inner development, finding meaning and inner compass and becoming self directed.”

Bjorkman is critically optimistic of success:

“If we are too optimistic then we don’t realize the urgency and the need for both individual and collective agency in this case. So I’m optimistic that we will manage this transition if we wake up to this both individually and collectively”, he says

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