The Most Progressive Countries in the World

What does a political revolution look like these days? Violent uprisings and burned car tires? Bloody coups and rolling heads? Or millions of people gathering in the streets? No, a true transformative revolution of politics is occurring – much in line with Marx’s ideas – within the most culturally and economically developed parts of the world-system. And devel­op­­ment has gone the farthest, by quite a margin, in a rather quiet corn­er of the world: Scandinavia. The goldilocks conditions for revolution are to be found in places where every­thing funct­ions and runs smoothly. The Nordic countries are ext­remely ordered societies, even today under the pressures of globalization and immigration. And it is within the framework of this extreme level of order – and the far progression of the dynamics inherent to modern society – that transformative political rev­olutions occur. Deep changes of the social, econ­o­mic, political and behav­ioral structures are happening at an accel­erating pace, because this is one of the few places in the world that runs smoothly enough to allow it.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the chapter about “How Politics Changed”, the rise of post-materialist values and how a new meta-ideology has already been victorious across the entire political spectrum in the Nordic countries.

In the Nordic countries we are beginning to see clear patt­erns of metamodern politics at play. The metamodern political revolution goes under the radar of global media – and academia – because it happens so inconspicuously, so grad­ually. And, moreover, the Scandinavians themselves lack any conception of the profound global changes that are beginning to take place in their own back­yards. Still, people in and beyond Scandinavia haven’t failed to notice that he Nordic countries may very well be the most progressive societies on Earth.

But political “progressivity” is a rather strange notion. The idea pre­supposes that there can be a certain form of “historical progression”, a goal or at least direct­ion towards which humanity can and should evolve. It pre­supposes, further­more, that there is a “background space” with preset mea­­s­­­ures and mark­­ings in it, denoting both directionality and distance of social develop­ment.

Some different possible meanings of “progressive” should thereby be men­tioned before we go on. When people use the word in different con­texts, pro­g­ress­ivity can mean:

  • That one favors values that have appeared recently over values that have existed a longer time.
  • That one is invested in the ideas and political opinions that happ­en to become ratified by people in the future – thereby the future “shows that you were right”.
  • That one is eager to see change in society and thereby is willing to take risks and experiment with new social forms.
  • That one is simply leftwing – and the more leftwing, the more prog­ress­ive.
  • That one is simply good, instead of bad (conservative) or evil (regress­ive, reactionary).

None of these meanings quite capture the idea of the Nordic countries being “progressive”. We are not really speaking of progression through hist­orical time – and certainly not a determined progression.

”Sweden is by no means, and never has been, the socialist semi-utopia it was sometimes portrayed as … but overall, the country has some qualities that make it a good example for under­standing what general cultural progression might look like.”

What Makes Sweden Progressive?

So, what do we mean? Let’s take a few examples. In Sweden, all parties dis­­cuss sustainability issues much more than almost anywhere in the world. This country also accepts more refugees than other European coun­­t­ries (at least until it reached an administrative limit in 2015), shows lower levels of explicit xenophobia in the surveys, gives more money to foreign aid develop­ment, is more digitalized, has lower crime rates and corruption, lower income inequality (at least until recently), higher stand­ards of living, higher levels of reported happiness, and greater gender equality (Sweden has the only signi­ficant feminist party in the world and an explicitly feminist foreign policy). The country generally supports free trade and manages to have relatively little red tape on enterprise despite its high taxes and strong labor rights. People live longer, at better health, with better teeth, with greater trust for other people and the authorities. People are more secularized than in almost any other country. Kids who grow up there now­adays often start working ser­iously only at around 30, after having travelled the world, studied (paid for by government), played computer games and gone to music festivals. Gender equality is much better, with liberal, permissive expressions of sexuality as a result. When the girls select guys, they go less after the hyper-masculine and socio-economic­ally dominant ones than is the case in other countries.

Sweden is by no means, and never has been, the socialist semi-utopia it was sometimes portrayed as. There is unemployment, social tensions of all sorts and plenty of human and animal misery. Issues of racism, exclu­sion and poverty are at every corner. Police, nurses and teachers feel undervalued and protest at waning real wages, sometimes to the point of leaving their jobs. But overall, the country has some qualities that make it a good example for under­standing what general cultural progression might look like.

Sweden is a tiny part of the economic system of some seven billion people that today spans the globe, constituting circa 1/700th of the world’s popul­ation. It has a favorable position within that system, where it has been able to combine relative wealth with relative equality and stability for a considerable period of time. There is nothing within the “Swedish soul”, nothing inherent to their “Swedish model” Folkhemmet (“The People’s Home”, a welfare system which in fact resembles other European count­ries much more than people generally realize), or about the country’s natu­ral resour­ces, that exp­lains this progression. When Mary Wollstone­craft, the English mother of first wave feminism, travelled Sweden in 1796, she wrote in her famous Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark about the appallingly low status of women in these societies, how barbaric it all seem­ed. Until the early 1700s, the Swe­des were arguably the most blood-thirsty, warmongering people in Europe. Only in 1865 did the country transition from an estate system with nobility, church, bourge­oisie and peas­antry to a bicameral parliamentary syst­em (which has since been repla­ced by a single cham­ber).

Sweden had relatively few industries and a poor population, with major migrations to America in the 19th century and widespread poverty well into the early 20th century. The comparatively small bourgeois class could not gain the same political influence as in France and Germany, and worker parties established social democracy – an alliance between poor, relatively conser­vative workers and progressive intellectuals (supported by the peasant party). In exchange for representing their economic interests, the intellectuals im­posed their more cosmopolitan values upon the workers by use of the insti­tutions of the industrial nation state: schooling, mass media and the bureau­cracy. This system was supplemented with a few “popular movements” (Swe­dish: folkrörelse), where wide participation was mustered – Pentecostal reli­gion, labor movements, anti-alcohol and later anti-nuclear energy. The ac­counts of these popular movements tend to be rather romanticized, but they did play a part in popularizing “mod­ern” and “progressive” values.

As the country did not partake in the world wars, its relative economic position was strength­ened and it could sport an impressive growth during the “golden age” of the dec­ades after the Second World War.

The only thing special about Sweden is that it has had a relatively stable development in a relatively favorable part of the world economic system of trade, growth and exploitation – while being at a relatively short geo­graphic, cultural and linguistic distance from the center. That’s it.

”Even if the values of countries do jerk back and forth over time, the overall progress­ion is clear: we are headed towards a world with more cosmopolitan values”

Progressive Values

Most often, in most parts of the world, society tends to be much more tumul­tuous, especially dur­ing periods of rapid change and technological expansion. But for a host of different reasons, this particular part of the world, not only Sweden but also the rest of Scandi­navia, managed to dev­elop a full-blown postindustrial econ­omy with more or less the whole of the population on board, under relatively stable circumstances. This caused the cultural values of the popul­ation to cha­nge during the last part of the 20th century, and the political land­scape shifted accordingly, subtly but radically.

You are perhaps familiar with the Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the Wor­ld (see figure below). It is based on the world’s by far most encom­pa­ss­ing soc­iolog­ical investigation, asking people in most countries of the world a host of survey questions, a total of over a thousand variables (alth­ough far from all parti­cipants are asked all of the questions). Over the decades it has accum­ulated millions of entries, studying cultural differ­ences and trends over time. In the scientific literature there is almost a whole genre of papers directed towards criticizing different aspects of its methodology. But even if criti­cism can be raised against different aspects of the World Values Survey, one of its main results seems rather solid: the overall picture of The Cultural Map of the World. As you can see in the figure, Protestant Europe (and especially the Nordic countries) holds the upper right corner of the two-dimensional cultural map of the world. This means that people here, on average, lean much more towards rational-secular values (vs. traditional values) and self-express­ion val­ues (vs. sur­vival values) than anywhere in the world. This is where people believe in abortion and gay rights rather than God’s reign, and where they are more likely to go to India to “find themselves” on a spiritual journey rather than finish their degree on time.


Source: Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world, 2015.

It can be no coincidence that the most stable parts of the world, the parts that have had a wealthy and equitable economy for a long time, also have the “most modern” worldview among their populations. In fact, the Nordic coun­tries have sped up in this direction during the last two dec­ades, in the same period as they have become countries of immi­gration, accepting large num­bers of people from more traditional societ­ies. In a way, the figures there­by conceal a yet stronger and clearer trend: the values of late modernity are winning over the traditional values at an astoun­ding pace. Even immigrants in Sweden tend to be “more modern” than e.g. the average resident of Poland. If you zoom out to a couple of hundred years ago, and look globally, the trend becomes clear. The Swed­es and Danes would have been conserv­ative peas­ants back then, com­par­able perhaps with today’s Afghans. Even if the values of countries do jerk back and forth over time, the overall progress­ion is clear: we are headed towards a world with more cosmopolitan values; values which accord­ing to Inglehardt and Welzel’s own analysis work better in modern society.

Think about it. The most secular people in say Pakistan are the richest and most educated ones – and these are the ranks that most other Pakistanis aspire to join. The wealthy Pakistanis, in turn, like to go to the US and adopt large parts of the American lifestyle and values. In the US, the liberal press has a constant upper hand on the conservative press, with TV-hosts ridiculing the rural, conservative population – and the people with the highest status are liberal New Yorkers rather than “hillbillies” and Christian fundamentalists. And among the liberal US population, Swed­en and other Nordic countries have a very strong lure, being viewed as “pure” and “fresh” – or just prog­ressive. If you are a liberal lawyer in Boston, you tend to love watching the Danish TV-series Borgen, (where a divorced woman and mother of two is prime minister of Denmark, dealing with a fictional Green Party to out­maneuver the crude, conserv­ative populists). And you are likely to listen to Nordic pop artists such as Robyn, Elliphant, MØ, Röyksopp or Björk, because these subtly embody more prog­ress­ive values in their artwork.

”I am not saying that the rest of the world is ‘destined’ to become like the Nordic countries … but significant sociological develop­ments have undeniably taken place here during the last century; chan­ges that can help us understand future developments in other countries.”

The Direction of Societal Progression

So the rapidly globalizing economic world-system has produced some pockets where the values and worldviews of a more global, digitalized civili­zation seem to have taken stronger hold, and they just happen to be in the Nordic countries. And these pockets have high symbolic value in the status chain of world cultures, which is evident in the growing cultural exports of these countries and the strong “Nordic brand” in proportion to the small size of the region.

None of this should be controversial. Some parts of the world seem to “develop” values ahead of others and thereby acquire “progressive” values, which in turn grant different advantages on the global market. After all, why should we expect all seven billion of us to alter our values in perfect unison with one another? And why should we expect all value systems to be of equal status on the global scene of cultural prestige?

I am not saying that the rest of the world is “destined” to become like the Nordic countries – technology and culture are evolving much too quickly for such silly recaps to occur. There will never be another 1960 or another 1990. Each historical moment is unique. Neither am I saying, of course, that the world is becoming irrevocably “westernized” and “secul­ar­ized” – there is cert­ainly more going on under the sun than that. But signi­ficant sociological develop­ments have undeniably taken place here during the last century; chan­ges that can help us understand future developments in other countries.

We are likely to see new and unexpected forms of societies emerge, for better or worse. It is in this regard that the Nordic countries offer an inter­est­ing case. If we truly want to understand the development of the global econ­omy and the emergence of its political, cultural and socio-psych­olo­gical land­scapes, we should not confine our analytical gaze to the after­maths of the Arab Spring or the struggling Kurdish state. In this coherent world-syst­em, we should look for the locations where people have the preconditions to write new values on new tablets.

Societal progression is when lasting conditions of stability and abun­dance allow for changes in the games of everyday life to occur: in the workplace, in dating, in friends’ groups, at home (you stop beating the kids, for one thing), in neighborhoods, at school, in the political arena, in the market – and the labor market. The games of every­day life become milder, more sensitive, fair and forgiving as a result.

In this perspective it becomes apparent that the Nordic countries are by far the most progressive societies that the world has ever seen. It is here that we are most likely to find the values and worldviews that best corres­p­ond, in functional terms, to a complex, digitalized, global, trans­national, post-industr­ial society. (Now don’t get cocky and patriotic on me, you stupid Swedes, it’s not about you being better than anyone else.)

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.