Understanding the Danish society

Denmark is often held as some sort of Utopia by the Western world due to its welfare state and highly homogeneous culture. Much has been said about not just the positives, but also more recently, by the political right, the negatives of such a system. However, neither side has ever truly understood what the pros and cons of the Danish way are, nor what type of society would accept it in the first place.

The Danish way of thinking is, in many ways, self-contradicting and it is just as hard to wrap one’s head around it as it is with the Russian mindset. This would have been more apparent, were it not for the complete absence of conflict within the Danish state.

All societies have a more or less formal contract with their state, some founding principle that makes it legitimate in the eyes of the people: In the US this is the upholding of the Constitution; in China – to avoid a repeat of the starvation events under Mao and ensure everyone has food on the table. In Denmark, it is simply to preserve a state of comfort.

While the same is true of the rest of Scandinavia, the Danish mindset has evolved, for the most part, naturally, with little deliberation on the part of the state.

Danish culture has been in large part defined by the presence of the state, in ways that most free countries simply have not. The most apparent of which is family structure or, better said, the lack thereof as the individual is completely atomized.

The average Danish child will be placed into a kindergarten from the age of 3 – 4 years old with minimal interaction with their parents, as both of them typically are working full time to afford the bills that come with having the highest tax pressure in the world, and second worst purchase power parity in Europe.

Their middle aged parents do not fare much better, as divorce is frequent enough as to become ubiquitous. Here it is worth mentioning that Danish adolescents are among the first to move out of their parents’ home in Europe. While I do not see this as inherently negative, it does add to the overall state of disconnect within the family. This disentanglement is perversely mirrored in the usual treatment of the elderly in Denmark.

Children do not interact much with their parents after they move out, and the parents life is expected to go on as usual until they are too old to live on their own. At this point the overwhelming standard is to let your parents be institutionalized. This is so common to the point where any other arrangement is practically unheard of.

With the exception of the occasional visit, the parents are left completely out of sight and thus out of mind. It’s the polar opposite of Italy, where the child is expected to either move out at some point in their forties, or simply inherit the family home and take care of their parents until their death.

While abuse is not the absolute standard within retirement homes, it is frequently reported on. It is not unusual for horror stories of elderly, no longer capable of standing on their own and bedridden, to be neglected by social workers that simply don’t want to help them get to the bathroom, and instead leave them mired in their own fecal matter for several days.

Its not that anyone wants this abuse to continue per se, in fact the topic has had mainstream attention both in the media, among political parties, and in political satire for several decades now. The truth is quite simple, and quite depressing: No one cares.

This is not meant in the sense that people find the abuse mentioned above acceptable, they don’t. Instead no one really thinks about or wants to do anything to change things.

A far leftist and former friend of mine once said that the greatest boon of the welfare state was that it “liberated him from his own morality”. Thanks to it, he argued, there was no need to care about the homeless, the poor, his family, or anyone other than himself, because ”society will take care of it”.

While many Danes would feel repulsed by such a statement, there is a kernel of truth to it: The welfare state has in its own perverse way ”liberated” the individual from his morality and responsibility. This is at least in part what we are seeing with the disentanglement between families and the elderly.

Denmark is a deeply apathetic country, and the odd thing about this characteristic apathy, whether towards governmental overreach, abuse in the social sector or blatant corruption, is that there is barely any propaganda effort from the state itself involved. Rather there simply is a disinterest so ubiquitous as to become part of the background noise, as it permeates every part of the Danish worldview: both empathically, intellectually, and politically, in ways that often appear paradoxical.

The national self-image vexes between viewing ourselves as a small, irrelevant spot in the middle of Europe to extreme arrogance over our glorious welfare state, especially compared to those stupid Americans that are constantly shooting each other or going broke from their dysfunctional, obviously anti-human private healthcare system. Although self-contradictory at a glance, these two ideas can coexist in people’s heads at the same time without cognitive dissonance, as they are not two mutually exclusive ideas, but rather a single, logically coherent narrative that can produce diametrically opposed feelings depending on the context: This national narrative, referred to as “Lilliput Chauvinism” by the politician Uffe Østergaard, is best summarized as “we are small and irrelevant but our socially homogenous and deeply empathetic culture has resulted in the north – and in particular us, creating a much more humane, and happy society than the rest of the globe.”

Like how a faucet can produce either warm or cold water, depending on how you turn the knobs, the focal point of the narrative can be altered to hone in on either the inferiority aspect as a means to deflect criticism of flaws brought to the surface, or the superiority, to induce a delusional belief in the superiority of the Danish system – which therefore does not need to be altered, as there’s no need to change what is already as good as it gets.

Complementing this is the insular nature of Danish society. Not much is reported on or understood, or even paid attention to of our neighboring countries. There is some superfluous reporting on whatever happens in the United States, usually ripped straight from their legacy media, and sometimes Sweden (since the border with them is right next to our capital) but that’s about it. Rarely is anything ever reported about Norway, Germany or Britain. The cultural insularity of the nation solidifies it’s inferiority-superiority complex, since the country as a whole is simply not aware or interested in other ways of structuring a society.

For a personal example, a family movie I watched as a small child had a song in the intro credits with lyrics such as:

man er som man er det kan ikke laves om
man går rudnt og ser ud som maan gjorde da man kom
du kan drømme om at være en kineser I new yok
men man er som man er og det er godt nok.

En hest er en hest en kat er en kat
de er ligesåforskellige som dag og som nat…
og tyskere og svenskere er også en slags menesker
og rødhårede piger er kønne

You are as you it cannot be changed
one walks around and look as one did when you arrived
you can dream about beign a chinese in New York
But you are what you are and it’s good enough

A horse is a horse a cat is a cat
they’re as different as day and as night
and Germans and Swedes are people too I suppose
and read-haired girls are cute

The song is quite indicative of the mentality here. Danes are not devoid of humour, especially not when at the expense of our neighbours, due to historical beef turned banter (as is the case with practically all Old World countries). But there’s also this notion that what you are is pretty good, so there’s no need to do anything about it, or change, or improve. What you are is more or less “good enough”.

This is certainly not helped by the populace’s disinterest in seeking out knowledge or wisdom on their own.
It’s not that Danes are stupid, as the over representation among Nobel price winners for instance shows, but that their thinking is rigid. Knowledge is only gathered and created, and expertise only acquired within already established fields, such as the hard sciences, and outside them, is a dearth of intellectual curiosity. Appeal to experts is commonplace and expert opinion is paraded around by the media on a daily basis.

It is not without reason Denmark has not had a renowned thinker – neither globally, nor domestically, since Søren Kirkegaard. On a related note, Denmark has not created many cultural movements of its own for at minimum the last 100 years. More often than not, ideas are simply imported from abroad, as was the case with Lutheran Protestantism by the priest Hans Thausen or with the welfare state itself, originally imported from Bismarck’s Prussia, until it developed a life of its own here.

Much of this lack of interest can be traced back to the 1800s: Following the loss of Norway to Sweden during the Napoleonic wars, Denmark entered a cultural period known as Romantikken, or the romantic period. The core idea was that ”what was lost externally, must be won internally”. No longer was Denmark to pay attention to anything outside of it’s own borders, as it refused to look away from its rural landscapes through rose tinted glasses; effectively romanticising what was left of the country in an attempt to ignore the nation’s sorry state of affairs.

It is here we find the source of Danish Lilliput chauvinism, as both a coping and a defence mechanism against harsh reality, as it reminded us of our own inadequacy.

This can also be seen in the notion of the Janteloven, a set of laws unique to the fictional town of Jante, made as a satire of Scandinavia’s stigma against excellence:

Don’t believe you are anything
don’t believe you are as much as us
Don’t believe you are smarter than us
Don’t believe you are better than us
Don’t believe you know more than us
Don’t believe you are more than us
Don’t believe you amount to anything
Don’t laugh at us
Don’t believe anyone likes you
Don’t believe you can teach us anything

At no point has this order of affairs ever truly been disputed. While the central focus of the following era, the modern breakthrough, indeed was that the nation ought to cease its nostalgic ruminations and face cruel reality, the cruel reality in question was the suffering of the poor and the working class, underneath the classicist society. It was essentially proto-socialism. Created a century before Marx was even born and complete with deconstructive reinterpretations of established folklore to serve the anti-idealistic bend of the era. Added to these is a fear of going outside of the system.

Dissent is allowed, but only in predetermined ways by going through the system itself, never around it, and it is frowned upon to criticise individuals working in the bureaucracy as “just doing your job” is a commonplace and acceptable justification for state overreach. The result? A society unwilling to engage in the historical arena (with the blessing of its geography), uninterested in learning from others and dedicated to the alleviation of harm from its citizens, and one which has effectively produced an “end of history”-like scenario.

There are no conflicts here and with the exception of a brief almost bloodless invasion by – and immediate submission to – Nazi Germany in the 1940s, the notion that you need to defend what you hold dear, that there’s something it must be defended against, and whether it was even worth defending in the first place, is mute. In its place there’s a perpetual state of nothing ever happening.

It can be seen even in the language too: For instance, the standard response to being asked how are things going is “stille og roligt/quiet and calm”.
Another example is the word “hygge”. Which is often paraded around as the quintessential Danish word, as it has no direct translation. The approximate is a mix between “cozy” and “comfy”. That feeling of sitting and chilling with your friends and feeling pleasant while nothing is really happening.

I’m defining it because Danish does not typically make use of a direct word for “scary” or “horrifying” instead the most commonly used word is “uhygge”. It’s much like how Russian does not have a direct mainstream word for “safety” or “security” but instead uses “undanger” [безопасность].

As nothing is happening, and will never happen, conflict is viewed as unnecessary and abnormal if not to some extend unnatural, if it is ever placed in bigger doses than the occasional joke about the Nazis or drawing of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban here and there. The ability for, and conceptualization of, conflict taking place is not only absent on a national scale but on the individual level as well. No one is capable of starting conflicts and no one has the necessary mental reflexes to handle it.

This conflict avoidance leads to an odd form of moderation, where the victim of the state will always react to abuse by pleading. If the state overreaches, the reaction will always begin by admitting one is themselves guilty before stating that what’s happening is absurd. There won’t be any backlash, only a plead for a slightly thinner slice of the salami to be served this time around. This is arguably why the country has some of the highest anti depressant consumption in the world.

It is not that we batter our children into soulless drones, it’s that we don’t need to. Because the concept of conflict simply does not exist inside the little Danish world. As there’s simply no practical way of venting frustrations people simply give up trying or become bitter and resentful, as the shadow parts of the human mind are not being allowed to fully integrate. The populace may act nice but it is not good.

And if you dig deep enough down underneath that outer layer of niceness in a Dane’s psyche, you’ll find something you won’t like looking at.

Niels Pilegaard
Normal guy that occasionally has something to say. Also available on Substack.