July 25, 2021

Scandinavian trust and cooperation due to absence of imperial history

[Part 1 and Part 2]

Now, for the cases that show what happens when nations do not have a history of imperial expansion themselves, or being absorbed close to the core of other empires. The best examples are in Scandinavia, which is famous for its high levels of trust and civic cooperation.

As with the low-trust nations, we can start by dismissing various static factors by comparing them to their neighbors with the same factors. Scandinavia is genetically Germanic, Germanic-speaking, a late-comer to Christianity, Protestant for centuries, northern / cold / flat geography (all settlements are in the lowlands), and agrarian. In other words, highly similar to northern Germany, or eastern Germany for that matter (the only difference being that eastern Germans are genetic Slavs who culturally assimilated).

And yet, Protestant Germany has been marred by vicious civil wars within recent history. Not just the Nazi vs. anti-Nazi conflicts, but the Thirty Years War, and the large-scale witch-hunt panics and book-burning epidemics of the early modern era. The Protestant Reformation itself was a form of civil breakdown within the German states.

Scandinavia's only difference with Britain is that the latter is more hilly and pastoralist, but then that does not apply to southern England, which is part of the Great European Plain. And yet, today southern England, and Britain as a whole, is coming apart at the seams. Ireland formally broke off a century ago, they lost their remaining colonies after WWII, and the Scottish reached the point of putting independence to a vote.

Abuses of power large and small by the elites, commoners' distrust of institutions, and a general feeling of coming unglued from "one's own countrymen" and having no shared higher purpose binding them together, are defining features of contemporary Britain, totally the opposite of their 19th-century heyday. Chav culture and degeneracy are worse than ever in the nation's history.

Today's is nihilistic, corrosive, and doomer, unlike earlier eras where at least the degenerates were innocuous and almost purposeful in their hedonism. For example, the ribald lads and lasses of Chaucer, the adultering men-about-town in Samuel Pepys' diary, and even the lower-class gin bingers in Hogarth's time. All of those zeitgeists were set during the rise of English asabiya and ethnogenesis, which really kicked off during and after the Hundred Years War against the expanding French.

Scandinavia has not been plagued by book-burning Nazis, nor English levels of corruption and degeneracy. Even during the fin-de-siecle and early 20th century, it's not Scandinavian cities that come to mind when you think of degeneracy, child prostitution, trannies, weird / iconoclastic art, and so on. There were some imitators of the Continental trends, like Strindberg and Munch, but overall it remained more wholesome than their neighbors of that time (not a high bar to clear, as they were collapsing empires).

What truly accounts for Scandinavian exceptionalism? Well, the region has rarely given birth to an expansionist empire, especially recently, nor has it been absorbed into the cores of other empires.

All those pioneers of fin-de-siecle and Modernist weirdness / corrosion came from stagnating and declining empires, namely those that had arisen during the early modern era — Spain, France, Austria, Germany, and Britain.

And then there is the pre-modern imperial history of those nations. Spain was left in the black hole of asabiya when the Roman Empire collapsed, to the extent that it got conquered by Germanic invaders (the Vandals), and then by invaders from the Maghreb for centuries. France had been an expanding empire in the high-to-late Middle Ages, and before that under the expanding unified Franks (and southern France was close to the Roman imperial core, in ancient times). Western Germany, too, was part of the Frankish Empire, as well as the (less cohesive) Holy Roman Empire.

None of those empires from any period of European history — the pre-Roman Celts, the Romans, Franks, French, Spanish, Austrians / Habsburgs, Russians, Ottomans, Bulgarians, Mongols, British, Dutch Republic, Poland-Lithuania, etc. — reached up into Scandinavia. The region was never incorporated swiftly into the invaders' core, sharing in both their rise and then hangover-prone fall.

What about launching empires of their own? The closest was the Vikings of Norway. However, their heyday was fairly short-lived, not centuries long in one direction, and even that was in the late 1st millennium, leaving enough time for them to return to a normal resting state after a centuries-long hangover.

Denmark has even less to boast of imperially, other than sending some invaders into Britain — like most other northern Germanic people did — in the second half of the 1st millennium. They were unified politically with Norway for awhile, though not through imperial expansion.

Finland does not even have that level of expansion in its history, nor does Iceland.

The only semi-empire that came from Scandinavia recently was Sweden's rise to great power status during the 17th century. Still, it didn't last for very long — roughly a century from Gustavus Adolphus in the early 1600s to their defeat by the nascent and expanding Russian Empire during the Great Northern War in the early 1700s.

Their gains in the German states were mainly opportunistic easy wins, as the German states were breaking down internally during the Thirty Years War. Their gains in the Baltic lands were meager — only Estonia and Latvia, not the then-mighty Lithuania (part of the expanding Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). And Russia gobbled those up after defeating Sweden. Sweden did conquer Finland, but shortly lost that one as well.

And at least in Germany, the Swedish forces were heavily staffed by foreign mercenaries (I'm unclear about whether this happened in their Baltic conquests). That means that their success was not so much due to rising asabiya among the Swedish people in the Swedish homeland. When it comes from rising asabiya, the fearsome military is known to be domestic — the tercios of the Spanish Empire, the Winged Hussars of Poland-Lithuania, the British navy, the Russian Cossacks, and so on.

It's hard to imagine who the expanding Other would have been that shared a meta-ethnic frontier with Sweden, leading up to the 17th C. Not the Russians — they arrived in the Baltics after Sweden's rise. Not the other Scandinavian countries. There are no other countries that border on Sweden. And it's not as though they were being pressured or invaded by the British or French or Austrians. Nothing to force them into an intensely cohesive in-group that would lead to their own expansion.

If Sweden's rise to great power status was not due to a rollercoaster ride of asabiya, then they would not have suffered from a hangover once their ascent was over. They took advantage of the geopolitical moment, enjoyed winning the lottery, and then went back to their normal lives once that good-luck money had been spent.

Having said that, Sweden is more nihilistic, degenerate, and plagued by parasitic elites than its Scandinavian neighbors. And it is the most libertarian (anti-collective) of the Scandinavian countries. That still puts it in a different universe compared to Britain, Germany, France, etc. But it's worth noting that even a minor, quasi-imperial history can leave minor, quasi-hangover effects on the nation's solidarity, after the heyday is over.

The flipside of this, though, is that Scandinavian countries have never been at the tippy-top of scientific and artistic accomplishment, not that they're languishing either of course. But they have not been filled with the single-minded sense of being chosen, special, and called on to fulfill a higher purpose as an entire culture. To conquer scientific and artistic frontiers, as well as territorial ones. My impression is that they are just fine with that trade-off, rather than producing Newtons and Bachs but then having to suffer from chav culture, Weimar degeneracy, etc. during the hangover phase of the asabiya cycle.

I'm not sure how educated people in various European countries see their own history, or European history overall, but here in America college grads (including all Ivy grads) think that European nations have existed forever, have always been expanding empires to varying degrees, and therefore have always been in territorial conflict with one another. Hopefully this whirlwind tour through European imperial history dispels that delusion among Americans.

Some places, like France, truly have been the source of empires going back thousands of years. But Spain has only been an expanding empire once, Italy only once (the Romans), Britain only after the Hundred Years War (and ending with WWI), the Russians only after the Golden Horde, and so on and so forth. On the other hand there's the ignorance about former empires in eastern Europe aside from the ancient Macedonians and the Russians — i.e., the Byzantines, Bulgaria, the Ottomans, and Poland-Lithuania.

Only after surveying the entire history of empires in Europe can you appreciate how non-imperial Scandinavia has been, from ancient times to the present. And that is its secret ingredient for trust and civic cooperation. Sadly we cannot clone their history in a lab, and introduce it into our American ecosystem (or the British or French or other ecosystem).

In general, social science and history should not pretend to be a utilitarian management consultant firm — "We hear that you elites have a certain problem, well we've got just the solution!" — and should stick to constructing true but useless models of how the world works. It's pure science, not applied engineering.


  1. To clarify on the degree of trust, I'd say Scandinavians are not so much *high* in trust, but *normal* in trust. They only seem so high to most other Westerners because "the West" is the remnants of collapsed early modern empires, and are suffering from a hangover in cooperation.

    Until recently, Americans never envied the Scandinavians for their trust and civic spirit -- we had that, and even more. We were an expanding empire, with soaring asabiya. That's what truly *high* levels of trust and cooperation look like.

    As in an excitable system, if you stimulate it to the point where it takes off on a soaring high, it is destined to plunge into a crashing low, before slowly coming back to a normal resting level.

    Scandinavia is a region where they have never been stimulated into the high in the first place, and so where they have never suffered at the low level. They have fallen within a more-or-less normal range the whole time.

  2. How has no one re-written the Aladdin song to be "A Cold Brew World"? Plays up the idea that cold brew is a fantastic new experience for coffee drinkers, hits at Millennial nostalgia, and it's a nearly perfect rhyme of the original song title and refrain.

  3. >Some places, like France, truly have been the source of empires going back thousands of years. But Spain has only been an expanding empire once, Italy only once (the Romans), Britain only after the Hundred Years War (and ending with WWI), the Russians only after the Golden Horde, and so on and so forth. On the other hand there's the ignorance about former empires in eastern Europe aside from the ancient Macedonians and the Russians — i.e., the Byzantines, Bulgaria, the Ottomans, and Poland-Lithuania.

    After having read Robert Tombs two books - The English & Their History - That Sweet Enemy: The History of a Love-Hate Relationship - I would argue that the 'metaethnic frontier' was the Reformation & the Civil Wars leading to a first age of Empire that ended in the 1720s/1730s & started unraveling until a second 'frontier' in the American Insurrection/French Revolutionary wars/Napoleonic wars caused a second age of Empire with an entirely different 'mood' (Federalism became the English ideology against the Sovereignty of the Mother Parliament, Free Trade against mercantilism, anti-slavery/labour standards against the 'industriousness' revolution, religiously missionary against religiously exclusivist in the colonies, the defender of tradition against the beacon of modernity). This mood ran out in the 1870s with the cross-ideological label for the decade being the Age of Decadence but limped along until the bubble burst in wwi.


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