The Swedish Theory of Love rests on colonial stereotypes

The problem isn’t that Erik Gandini’s film The Swedish Theory of Love explores individualism and collectivism. The problem is the way collectivism is crudely linked to poverty and black people who are not allowed to speak for themselves

The perils of Swedish individualism

Erik Gandini’s The Swedish Theory of Love is based on the classic trope that Swedes are lonely. The dominant ideology is a radical individualism, underpinned by the socialist dream of independence within the welfare state. In some ways we seem to be diving into Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World — where our material needs are fulfilled, artificial reproduction is increasingly common and emotional relationships are no longer needed.

In the film, Swedish individualism is contrasted against Ethiopian collectivism. This is undoubtedly an interesting juxtaposition for anyone living in a multicultural society, where different conceptions of life and the family coexist. A few months ago, I worked as a summer camp mentor in London and visited an elderly care home. The first question I got from my group of teenagers, who mostly came from Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds, was “why is everyone here white?”

This is exactly the kind of question the documentary aims to answer. And it’s exciting that for once Swedes get to be studied in the outdated anthropological style usually reserved for foreign cultures.

However, Gandini’s depiction of Africa, Ethiopia and black people is less defensible. He introduces us to the Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world, where the values of different countries are categorised along two axes: “traditional” against “secular-rational”, and “survival” against “self-expression”. Africa and the Islamic world ends up in the “traditional” and “survival” corner, whereas Sweden tops “self-expression” and “secular-rational” values.

This alone should set alarm bells ringing. When we’re the ones defining self-expression or rationality (presumed positive values), of course we’re going to come first. The not so subtle message is that in some way, we’re more civilised than the rest of the world.

The film then takes us to Ethiopia, where we meet the Swedish-Danish surgeon Erich Erichsen, who moved there after 30 years of work in Sweden. He explains that Ethiopians have a different sense of collectivist solidarity and happiness, despite their poor living conditions. The Ethiopians in the film don’t get to explain this themselves — they don’t get a single line.

Essentially, the black Ethiopians become noble savages, a colonial stereotype which reduces people of colour and indigenous people to symbols of a primitive goodness, untouched by civilisation.

Even though Gandini’s main point is to criticise the Swedish movement towards individualism, the usage of the noble savage trope remains problematic. It enforces the idea that people of colour and indigenous people are unintelligent, impoverished and incapable of thinking and experiencing fundamental feelings and relations in the same way as white people. Noble savages can’t even speak for themselves.

This makes it easier to justify injustices against “them”: everything from colonialism to neo-colonialism in the contemporary global economy and closed borders to refugees. At one point in the film, Erich Erichsen shows us how he has to use bicycle spokes instead of medical screws to deal with fractures, due to a serious lack of resources. The way in which it’s presented makes it seem comical. Would it have been equally funny if the patients were white Swedes?

The problem isn’t that The Swedish Theory of Love takes up the concepts of individualism and collectivism. These are two conceptions of human life which indeed have different cultural roots. The problem is the way collectivism is crudely linked to poverty and black people who are not allowed to speak for themselves; people who are portrayed as happy, simple and uncivilised.

This article was originally published in ETC in Swedish.