Towards a Lagom Society

21/05/2013 / Kaj

We have a wonderful word in Swedish, ’lagom.’ Its meaning, like all wonderful foreign words, gets lost in translation, coming out as something like ’sufficient’ or ’adequate’ in English. But these synonyms fail to capture the contentment or perfect balance lagom entails.

I like to think of it in reference to the classic fairytale, ’Goldilocks and the three bears’, where a thieving little girl breaks and enters into the family home of three bears and proceeds to sample all their possessions. In the kitchen, for instance, she tastes three soups, one which is ’too hot’, the other ’too cold’, but the last is ‘just right’. That final soup is lagom!

This fine balance is summed up perfectly by that most Swedish of axioms, ’lagom är bäst’, or ’the right amount is the best.’ Astronomers talk of ’Goldilocks Planets’, which are those planets, like Earth, which are not ’too hot’, not ’too cold’, but ’just right’ for supporting life. My question then, is this: what makes a ’Goldilocks society?’

To answer this, it helps to remember that Lagom has social connotations too. According to a popular legend, the word’s etymological roots stretch back to the Vikings. Apparently, mead, their drink of choice was passed, ’laget om’, or ‘around the team,’ in a horn flask so that each got his fair share.

So as well as being the ‘just right’ balance of elements, the lagom society must also be equitable. To complete the analogy (and mix myths), imagine Goldilocks passing the soup around the bears.

In my view, the building of the welfare state in 1930s Sweden represents one attempt towards a lagom society. After a decade of crisis, business, unions and government worked together to negotiate a fair balance between differing outlooks and vested interests.

Guided by strong leadership, stakeholders forged a society characterised by:  equitable wage policy; investment in industry; and egalitarian education, housing and social systems.

Today, after a decade crisis, the 21st Century is having its own 1930s moment.

Nations are divided and increasingly unequal. Our economic model is dependant on unsustainable, unfettered consumption and has proven itself to be extremely destructive. On top of that, we face global challenges that have never been more daunting (see: Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockströms book, Bankrupting Nature).

We are living beyond our means and distributing the spoils unevenly. In short, we are a long way off the lagom society. It’s like a Viking halfway around the circle chugging down all the mead, or that greedy little trespasser Goldilocks sipping all the soup before the bears get home.

Resources must be shared across generations as well as between them. In much the same way that the welfare state was created by Swedish society for future generations and is still enjoyed 70 years later (though eroded due to the best efforts of the free-marketeers), today, we as a global society must work together to ensure that in 70 years time there will be a society worth inheriting, not one wrecked by corporate excess and environmental chaos.

It is up to us to start building this society, to emulate the spirit of the welfare state generation.  Governments need to engage stakeholders from industry to civil society and create a fair and sustainable future.

A quick survey of the Western national political landscape doesn’t offer much hope. Only one European government in recent times has attempted to set a policy agenda for sustainable development: Britain’s (former) New Labour administration. In an all-too-predictable instance of weak leadership, the Commission that resulted from this pioneering agenda was abolished by the current government, despite Prime Minister David Cameron’s rousing pre-election pledge to be the ’greenest government ever.’

It is at the lower levels of government, however, where the lagom ethos can be found. Here, a handful of groundbreaking, forward-looking regional and municipal authorities are enacting admirable policies, including: international trade and procurement for sustainable social investment programs in infrastructure and transport, energy efficiency programs, alternative energy, local farming, social care and job creation. It is high time their example, and that of the 1930s Swedes, catches on higher up the political hierarchy. Time is running out. We must make it happen.

Here’s to a society of equitable balance – a balance between capitalist models and social policies, between economic growth and environmental sustainability, between national interests and international responsibilities, and between contemporary populations and unborn generations. I’ll raise my horn of mead to that.

 Kaj Embrén

Comments
  1. Dear Kaj,

    Well done!

    A good example to all nations especially developing countries. This should be posted to all local newspapers in African cities for population to read for themselves. Again well done!

    Best regards

    John Gakunga

  2. Agree, by coincidence I wrote a blog post about the Lagom society not long ago – it was actually a review of the book Enough is Enough by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill, http://gardenearth.blogspot.se/2013/03/lagom-is-good-enough.html

  3. Dear Kaj,

    Good to get another lagom write up from you. It is true lagom is needed at each level of governance and lagom society will be ideal one to achieve for. In developing countries, the least awareness and high compulsion at individual and nation-state level is so that the dream of lagom society at third level of institution – municipality and panchayat may be easier answer for achieving overall lagom. The debate may be lagom society should evolve within with outside support or should be evolve outside and with the support from inside. At state-nation level, humanity had seen the trend, challenges and lessons. At society level, group of sovereign and global individual (not institutions) may be more effective for lagom. Networking like minded global citizen and selecting and supporting the society of developing countries in virtual world is possible for lagom society.

  4. I wouldn’t call Sweden a “lagom” society, like Tino Sanandaji writes:

    “Sweden is viewed as an egalitarian utopia by outsiders, but reality is complex. In some ways Sweden has less social equality than the United States. While the American upper class is largely meritocratic, the upper class in Sweden are still mostly defined by birth”

    http://super-economy.blogspot.se/2013/04/the-upper-class-and-wealth-inequality.html

  5. To mash the words of a Johnny Cash song, “Times a-Wastin”….I’ve got ideas, you’ve got ideas, we’ve all got ideas – lets all get together and use those ideas. The talkin’s done, and whether it’s the lagom beat of the drum roll or any other beat – lets all collaborate across the entire Third Sector (Co-ops, Social Enterprise, SHG, arts & culture, lifework, lifeskills….Communities of every ilk, beyond borders). Times a-wastin, and we’ve got everything but time in our hands.. Lets put our respective Third Sector structures in place and collaborate, stop waiting for others to initiate solutions. It’s a time of both great opportunity and danger, in equal measure..

  6. Kaj

    Vern Hughes •

    Thanks Kaj, I love the concept of lagom. I was introduced to it some years ago sitting next to a Swedish woman on an international flight. I’ve since discovered there is a restaurant in Melbourne called Lagom. Good food too.

    The concept lends itself well to thinking about sustainable development. But I’m more interested in its application to balance between civil society, state and markets. This is the area where so much work needs to be done. While sustainable development is important, it is talked about everywhere. By contrast, discussion about balance between civil state, state and markets is still in its infancy. Most politicians, governments, policy makers and NGOs still don’t know what the discussion is about, and will fall back, by default, to thinking about state vs markets.

    What we can say, at the beginning of the 21st century, is that the state vs markets discourse does not produce balance. It leaves society out of the equation, squeezed and undeveloped. In western countries with significantly less lagom than Sweden, we have political cultures which are wildly unbalanced, where society is still not part of the public conversation, and is marooned outside of the mainstream political debate, observing the ongoing hegemony of states and markets.

  7. Hello Kaj,

    Thanks for sharing the Swedish lagom concept. I’m still looking into my Viking roots (I am Danish and Norwegian – likely Swedish), and it’s nice to hear this kind of story. It is time that we moved away from the American free enterprise myth, and toward a the recognition of interdependence and the need for careful collective sharing. I, too, like markets, but I realize that market failures are more prevalent and serious than most modern economists and political leaders seem to realize.

    In America we hear talk of free enterprise being the only thing worth living for, when in fact the capitalist systems are fraught with market failure, government powers of taxation handed over to corporate fiefdoms and short-term thinking. In fact we reward these otherwise brilliant short-term strategies at our peril. We scoff at long-term planning and stock our cupboards for the failures to come.

    I hope true intelligence will prevail, and people foregoing short-term profit taking to help build a stronger future for our descendants will be recognized and rewarded.

    Give care, Daniel

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