jantelagen

A response to the Wikipedia entry on Jantelagen (“Du ska inte tro att du a nagon.”):


Danish author Axel Sandemose was incredibly critical of Janteloven / Jantelagen, a term he coined in his 1933 fictional critique of Scandinavian integration, En Flytning Krysser Sitt Spor (“A fugitive crosses his tracks”).

From a pro-inequality perspective, Jantelagen is a cultural reflex that seems to threaten to stifle our beloved “Great Men” (read: our own impression of ourselves). Yet, obviously, the small Scandinavian countries have a long, vast history of high economic, scientific, political, militaristic, education, environmental, and cultural exploration, innovation, achievement, and integration. Moreover, the critique of Jantelagen is Scandinavian. Therefore, it must be recognized as a self-reflexive narrative.

Centered on the exceptional perspective, the frustration and outrage experienced by a self-described genius immigrant at what he sees as inferior Scandinavians’ failure to extend credit, cooperation, and deference to him, the critique of Jantelagen itself is part of Jantelagen culture–a cultural system of rigorously checking people’s narcissistic pretensions to monopolize power. It is a reminder to a people indisposed to deference to leave some social space for extending credit and cooperation to newcomers.

And what exercise is more appropriate in such a frenetically self-aggrandizing yet deeply social species of Great Ape? Although it’s always annoying to have to deal with criticism, I very much doubt Jantelagen culture is stifling in the long haul.

Look at Jantelagen’s opposite–high-inequality, narcissistic Anglo-American culture, where elites enjoy absolute liberty to draw boundaries, delegate their agency, make and break rules and set the agenda, and are never compelled to confront and handle the idea that their interests might have sent society way off track, socially, ecologically, economically, and politically. Now there is social, political and economic rot.

In the context of a social species, a systematic lack of accountability is stifling, and crippling. Criticism isn’t stifling, beyond the immediate shame response. What can be overdone if not exercised in moderation, and is certainly not rare in high-inequality Anglo-American societies, is shame.

On Jantelagen and immigration:

The English-language Wikipedia entry treats Jantelagen as a threat to the Ayn Randian Anglo-American cultural ideal of the “Great Man” of business, because Anglo-Americans are centrally concerned with the deference “due” to the capitalist class, the exception centered. However, Jantelagen is actually about how Scandinavians respond to the autistic introduction of foreign culture by outsiders and newcomers who are prone to naturalize and decontextualize the “superiority” of their native “common sense,” culture, sacralized network, or technical patrimony.

Sandemose’s critique is excessive, inadequately reflexive, particularly when taken as something other than a marginal corrective to anti-deferential culture. It is another case of the excessive centering of exception justice in inegalitarian capitalism. In fact, incorporating new, non-acculturated members (whether immigrant or youth) is a real problem, is not automatic–For society is the ongoing culmination of class and other conflicts, the exchange of information, ideas, and grievances, per Rousseau (1762) and Dewey (1916). When newcomers are introduced, organized factions can use them as a sort of naive “shock troops,” to antidemocratically undermine the accumulated social contract hard-won in a region.

In this respect, Jantelagen refutes the naive approach that fails to see society in social terms, but only in market terms, eg. immigrants as merely new workers or new sources of wealth, or bringers of new techniques; or, in idealist philosophy’s under-conceptualization of change, youth as the fresh consumer model, superficially unspoiled by a lifetime of delegated, self-abnegating decisions.

Idealist philosophy has an impoverished conceptualization of change, as simply the altered structure imparted by the intercession of a divine exception.
Taste the Feeling Images

A kind of newcomer, youth are fetishized in advertising because their vitality is not the result of good decisions over time and in social and ecological context. They perpetuate the immemorial elite fiction of pleasure as atopic, consequenceless, absolute, the strict result of a divine or natural endowment of excellence (beauty).

Jantelagen’s approach, while risking failure to extend cooperation and credit to newcomers–who are admittedly already under-resourced or overburdened, forces perhaps the most crucial responsibility of democratic development (per Dewey 1916): Requiring social, historical awareness and learning, where the newcomer would be inclined to tune out the society, fitting them to be used as the delegated agency of–as an economic or political pawn by–opportunistic, privileged factions within the society. That is, Jantelagen demands that new members of society recognize that society is a social production with a material and cultural history

Why the hell not? That recognition requirement is not cripplingly burdensome, but enabling. It allows newcomers to develop their own sovereign agency in the society. It can be relayed with education, as well as through organizations. In a substantive democracy, such recognition and education must be the condition for receiving credit, cooperation, and citizenship beyond basic needs and negative rights.

Only if your intent was to dismantle a given, democratic society would you argue otherwise. Jantelagen is a preferable response to introducing newcomers to a society, when compared with what we blithely conceive of as “cosmopolitanism.” The kernel for this insight first came to me when I read Anthropology theory back in grad school in the late-1990s: Appadurai and Canclini. Per the Anthropology discipline’s commitment to centering the justice of the exception, cosmopolitanism was a marginally-amended parochial elitism. Anthropologists attempted to reductively classwash neoliberal immigration as a jetting-setting global cocktail party, ignoring power maldistribution and change over time, and merging–against the “average” oppressors–the moral sanctity of the world’s meritocratic capitalist elite and the needful, colorful peasant Poors. (Yet it also seems to me that as a longtime exponent of global economic elites’ justice of the exception, including in its contemporary military deployment, Anthropology as a discipline is appropriately marginal. You choose to go into Anthropology because you want to contribute to centering the justice of the exception–That is the way you imagine justice for the global poor, peasants, and indigenous people. But the justice of the exception must be dominated by the interests of the global elite.)

What is cosmopolitanism, as we currently understand it? It’s self-celebratory accumulator-class parochialism hiding behind a peasant’s skirts. Jantelagen, inclusive of its cautionary self-critique, is much more sociologically-grounded, inclusive justice, politically uniting the 99%. The relative weakness of 99% internationalism is that it has a harder time securing patronage.


A side note on Jantelagen and marketing:

Anglo-American naive narcissism makes for an easy marketing environment, to be sure; but the Scandinavians manage to consume a lot in their own way. Pay attention to their motivator: public life. They get ideas for how to consume by walking around in the streets, looking at each other, and by dropping in their local design shops.

Notes on theoretical relations:

Durkheim’s work on solidarity produces the Goldilocks principle: There’s a “just right” level of social accountability that results in diminished anomie. By comparison, the social democratic society, per Pasi Sahlberg, distinguishes and privileges low-inequality, lateral relations of responsibility rather than the servant relations of accountability that predominate in conservative and liberal societies. While both are about social integration, responsibility permits widespread human development; accountability permits top-down control.

Compare & contrast Durkheim’s Goldilocks theory of accountability with Carl Schmitt’s theory on The Enemy (1932), an impermissible type of Exception. Per Agamben’s (2005) critical analysis, in the overly-controlling, authoritarian regime that conservative legal theoretician Schmitt favors, there is low tolerance for deviance, and it’s the state’s job to destroy people who diverge from the strictly-policed, rigid norms within the nation-state territory. Genocide is the population-regulation business of the state.

Conservative Schmittian, genocidal extreme-integration theory emerges out of the “crisis” experience of Germanic territories struggling to reorganize and catch up to Anglo capitalism in the wake of the collapse of 19th century absolutism and empires; but well-fit for militarized societies, it has also been extended and adopted into the legal systems of neoliberalizing imperial societies such as the 20th-21st century US, and it extends as well to invasive colonial regimes that cannot tolerate pre-existing ways of life and modes of production, and the people and cultures who carry them or their memory.

Because they require discipline and performance out of their lowest ranks, militarized societies do not jettison human development in favor of elite Excellence and meritocracy, as less-militarized conservative and capitalist liberal societies do; but in militarized societies, human development is managed strictly within the constraints of absolute inegalitarianism. Lower-order life is developed only to the point that it is efficient to manage.

By contrast, socialist-influenced societies privilege universal human development in contextual balance over time, per philosophical materialism. This kind of developmentalism requires a distinctive network of built institutions and cultures. Consider the social democratic lagom ideal: Egalitarian solidarity is recognized as a crucial achievement of social democratic social order requiring coordinated reproduction, especially as it clashes with the inegalitarian capitalist context. However, socialism-backed social democracy is not maintained with belligerent rigidity as is capitalist conservatism. In social democracies, the Jantelagen critique culturally polices and limits the culture of solidarity to integrate difference and flex social boundaries.

The Jantelagen critique is a fable that reminds Nordic social democrats to provide some accommodation for very prideful, different individuals, because even destroyers may contribute to society. After all, sometimes social relations, institutions, policies, and practices need to be destroyed to make room for improvement. The Jantelagen fable is functionally related to (it’s a more resentful, less fun version of) the role of tricksters, such as Loki, in a society’s cosmology.

Of course, not all destruction is needed to make room for improvement. Recall  Deweyian education for democratic development and Rousseauian General Will theories, as they theorize, contra Hobbes, how to reproduce democratic societies, as for example by institutionalizing in education democratic exchanges of information, ideas, and grievances. How do we reproduce democratic achievements, where one or more conservatives prefer to trash them and erect a warlord order in their place?

For example, in 2011 sociopathic mass-murderer Anders Breivik (who changed his name to Fjotolf Hansen, as his extremely-destructive actions crushed his father) slaughtered 69 children at a camp and 8 adults, in an effort to take advantage of and break the social democratic solidarity-Jantelagen balance. Breivik/Fjotolf wanted to install instead a more intolerant, anti-solidaristic, inegalitarian conservative social order. Because not all destruction is needed or beneficial, societies require protections for accumulated social achievements.

In Norway, the protective measure was to imprison Breivik/Fjotolf as long as he maintained his sociopathic conviction that the democratic accumulation of social democratic achievements, and the people whose dispositions reproduce those achievements, must be destroyed. In effect, in a social democracy, an implementing (but not theorizing) Carl Schmitt has to be imprisoned.

Another option that some societies have pursued is to export to a more consanguine society their members who want to destroy and replace the social order. Socialist Cuba, for example, allowed Cubans committed to conservatism to emigrate and build a new, 100% conservative Florida community within the conservative-liberal, inegalitarian US.

A third option that other societies with lots of territory have pursued is to export intransigent members to labor in a remote region, as when the Soviet Union sent dissidents to work in Siberia, or when the conservative-liberal British Empire sent its criminalized working class men to labor in its far-off Australian colony.

As Durkheim demonstrated, humans need society. But what kind–how integrated? No matter what kind of society, it has to have boundaries. However, as we see above, “boundaries” can range from the genocidal law and policy of the imperial state to a social democratic state that both preserves a positive-status “trickster” role for the dissident and incarcerates individuals when they assume the powers of a genocidal imperial state.

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  1. Pingback: Intro to Philosophical Materialism with Marie Kondo | The Indomitable Neoliberals FC

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