Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A political theory book wrapped in a dystopian mystery

I recently came across The Steel Spring by Per Wahlöö. Per Wahlöö and his partner Maj Sjöwall wrote the Martin Beck series of detective stories in the early 1970s. Sjöwall and Wahlöö were Swedish and I was living in Sweden at the time. In fact, the Beck series, along with Sherlock Homes, was probably my first detective stories that I read.

I knew from that period that Wahlöö was Marxist which provides a context for interpreting this novel. The Steel Spring features Chief Inspector Jensen, an almost automaton of a detective. He appears never to care or express interest in the people around him. It is solely "Just the facts, ma'am." He is a product of a government system which treats people as engineered cogs in the collective system.

The story is set in an unspecified future in an unspecified place but from context we know it is Sweden in a projected future beyond the seventies. Jensen is dying of a liver condition and sent overseas (to the Soviet Union by implication) where he successfully pulls through a risky and experimental surgery.

On his recovery, he discovers that there is no contact with Sweden and no information. The Swedish embassy has been abandoned. There are rumors of some unspecified plague that might have wiped out the population. By circuitous means, Jensen returns to (unnamed) Stockholm to discover what has happened.

The writing is spare and the plot paced. There is a mystery, but it is the mystery of the murder of governance rather than the murder of an individual.

Read standalone, the book is interesting and worthwhile but I think it is far more entertaining when you reconstruct Sweden of the late sixties and early seventies.

There are some passages that are startling in their contemporaneity. Page 16 almost sounds like the conundrum that university administrators face with the vocal SJW minorities seeking to undermine the university educational environment. What do they want, why do they want it, what to do about it?
Demonstrations of that kind had been going on for the previous four years. They were still relatively insignificant in scale, but were being staged increasingly often, with participant numbers seeming to swell each time. The marches always followed roughly the same pattern. They began somewhere in the suburbs and headed for the city centre, either to some foreign embassy or to the coalition parties' central offices, where the march would break up of its own volition once the participants had chanted slogans for half an hour or so. There was no legislation outlawing demonstrations. In theory it was for the police themselves to decide on an appropriate response. In practice, things worked rather differently. The Ministry of the Interior initially gave orders that the demonstrations were to be halted and dispersed, that placards and banners were to be examined, and confiscated if any of the slogans were considered indecent, distressing or offensive. The clearly stated aim was to protect the general public from experiences that might put people on edge or spread a sense of insecurity. But police intervention had exactly the opposite effect. Despite the fact that these were not mass demonstrations but generally just groups of a few hundred people, attempts to break up the demonstrations led to skirmishes, disorder and serious disruption of the traffic. After a time, the police were ordered to use other methods, but there were no specific instructions on the measures to be taken. The forces of law and order did their best. They stopped some marches, for example, while they subjected all those taking part to breath tests.

Jensen had no clear conception of what the real aim of the demonstrations might be, but he thought he had some idea of how and when they had started.
Wahlöö captures the sense of a society adrift. Sound like our continuingly ineffective War on Drugs? Also echoes of the privileged elite not comprehending the demands of the hoi polloi?
The constant rise in drunkenness had led the government some years previously to pass a law making the abuse of alcohol illegal, not only in public places but also in the home. Being under the influence of alcohol in any setting at all had therefore become a criminal offence, a fact that had increased the burden of police work almost to breaking point. The new legislation had had no impact on drinking to excess, and it soon proved ineffective in clamping down on the demonstrations as well, since the marchers were never under the influence of alcohol. This strange circumstance was to Jensen's mind the only essential feature that distinguished the demonstrators from the population as a whole. Two years before, the alcohol policy had changed, with the new focus on price rises and chemical substances. In the meantime, the police had been ordered to leave the demonstrators in peace. It was decided by the government that the police should confine themselves to keeping certain foreign embassies under surveillance and directing the traffic along the march routes. Since then, the demonstrations had passed off calmly, but they were happening increasingly often, and more and more people were joining in, even though there was never a word about them in the papers, on radio or on television. There were rumours, however, of some anxiety at government level. In the most recent elections, voter turnout had slumped in a very disquieting way. No one understood why. Only vague figures had been released for publication, and these were commented on only in the most general terms. And the collaborating parties were engaging this year in propaganda more concentrated than they had ever employed before. The campaign had been launched back in the late spring, and was now accelerating to its peak.
Wahlöö also describes the austere architecture and planning of a centralized government - things being created for the people by the technocrats. It reminds me of the bauhausian/Soviet style developments near our home in Stockholm, Täby Centrum coming to mind. It was efficient, there was enough planned grass for residents, there was the minimum space calculated for residence, there were central facilities, there were the necessary bus stops so no-one needed cars, etc. - all planned by the bureaucrats. All with a focus on process, and efficiency, and control. This is a picture of Täby Centrum today though in my time there was more emphasis on poured concrete.

Here is Wahlöö again:
The suburb where Inspector Jensen lived consisted of thirty-six eight-storey blocks of flats, set out in four parallel lines. Between the rows of blocks there were car parks, grassy areas, and play pavilions of transparent plastic for what few children there were. It was all very neatly laid out. Further south, the tower blocks grew more spectral and decayed. It was some years since the authorities had solved the housing shortage with a building programme that produced endless blocks of flats like the one where he lived himself. So-called uniform estates, with standard apartments, all identical. But even back then, the older of the tower blocks, paradoxically often located long distances from the inner city, began to lose their occupants. They were abandoned by shopkeepers, property owners, the authorities and the tenants, in that order. Falling birth rates and the shrinking population naturally played their part, too. Deprived of communications and any way of supporting themselves — in the end they also had their water and electricity supplies turned off — the suburbs in question very quickly degenerated into slums. Most of the blocks of flats had only come into existence because private developers hoped to make a quick profit from the housing shortage. They were poorly built, and many of them had already collapsed, sinking like sinister grave mounds into the scrubby under-growth. The experts at the Ministry of Social Affairs had promoted the concept of letting these residential areas gradually empty themselves and ultimately collapse.
I have very, very fond memories of Sweden. It was not nearly as bleak as Wahlöö makes out but you could, even then, see the seeds of his concern.

Wahlöö, like other Swedish authors such as Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, carry a deep aversion, fear or paranoia about Capitalism, Vested Interests, Aristocracy/Upper Class, Secret Police, and the state security apparatus.

The Steel Spring makes most sense when you understand the context at that time. Sweden had been governed for some forty years by the Social Democratic Workers' Party, a left of center party, often in coalition with other Left parties. The SDWP was both ideologically socialist and also, essentially, a coalition of labor unions. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, the SDWP sought to, and did, build a pretty comprehensive welfare state with an emphasis on collaboration of all parties and interests in Sweden working together within a socialist construct to look after everyone.

As a Marxist, this is what Wahlöö was reacting against in The Steel Spring in 1970. He felt that the ideological purity of communism had been tainted and corrupted by the Socialists with their willingness to work with capitalists, vested interests and the security apparatus of the country. He saw this betrayal as sowing the seeds of collapse and hoped that that collapse would lead to a purification and a resurrection of the Marxist ideal.

And he was in a sense right. All socialists and communists lament the inevitable failure of their political experiments but the collapse is always, in their mind, because socialism/communism was not implemented correctly. It is never a possibility that socialism and communism simply do not work (see the contemporary tragedy of resource rich Venezuela, starving despite the world's largest reserves of oil.)

The Swedish welfare state was already beginning to collapse in the early 1970s when Wahlöö published The Steel Spring. Productivity was simply unable to keep up with the costs of the welfare system, leading to dramatic reforms in the 1990s. But reforms that took Sweden more towards the market rather than towards central planning.

Essentially this is a political theory book wrapped in a dystopian mystery. That is not a particularly common genre. It is an unusual artifact of a moment in time, when some gifted people still believed they could create a utopian worker's paradise without coercion or destruction. In the intervening years, in countries around the world, we keep proving that the worker's paradise never arrives and that the effort always entails death, destruction and coercion. Wahlöö was not to see reality's revocation of his dream. He died of cancer at only 48 in 1975.

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