The Irish journalist John Waters writes in First Things (excerpts follow),
“In 1972, the year ABBA was formed, an English journalist named Roland Huntford published The New Totalitarians, in which he exposed the underbelly of Swedish “progressivism”: a near century as a one-party state under the Social Democrats, featuring crude anti-family policies and rampant state incursion into citizens’ intimate lives. Huntford described a country governed by corporatism, in which personal freedoms and ambition had been sacrificed to political ideas that read on the page better than they play out in reality.
“Modern Sweden,” Huntford declared, “has fulfilled Huxley’s specifications for the new totalitarianism. A centralised administration rules people who love their servitude.”
In this equation, ABBA functioned as both antidote and accomplice. In a 1999 TV documentary about the band, Anni-Frid recalled that ABBA received a lot of criticism from the Swedish press due to its non-involvement in politics of any kind. Yet there is a kind of odd symbiosis between the band and its nation; ABBA served to impose a gracing aspect on an otherwise dour picture. In his 2014 book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, Michael Booth expresses puzzlement at the recurring trope whereby Swedes pronounce themselves the “happiest people in the world.” The reason is straightforward: This is how they are told to regard themselves by the state-directed media, responsible for bolstering Swedish self-esteem. ABBA has fulfilled something like the same function in speaking to the whole world.
Huntford had attempted to parse the paradoxes of Sweden’s apparently contradictory combinations of progressivism and post-patriarchal paternalism, prudishness and sexual liberation. It was a mistake, he decided, to say that the Swedes were particularly freewheeling or emancipated. Since the 1960s Sweden pushed sexual emancipation as though an element of economic policy, but as Huntford observed, sexual license, like the preceding obscurantism, was culturally and politically motivated. Freedom was not the point. The state became concerned with personal morality as a weapon of social change. “The English,” he observed, “are no less sexually liberated. But what distinguishes Sweden is that morality has become the concern of the government, where elsewhere it is something independent, growing out of changes in society.”
Sex became a safety valve for releasing built-up tensions wrought by the high-control society.
It is notable that the patterns discernible in Sweden in the 1970s have now become commonplace in Europe and America, with the COVID operation increasingly an accelerant. People are told what to think, and otherwise not encouraged to. The state knows best, especially about the citizens’ most intimate affairs.
Might ABBA, perhaps innocently, be paving the way for a new, dark, digital world?
Perhaps we might dust down a copy of Huntford’s The New Totalitarians, since what was then an experimental domestic condition now eyes up the entire world. Sweden in 1972, according to Huntford, was “a spiritual desert.” But this seemed to have “no ill effect on the Swede. His contentment depends entirely on material possessions…”