The law of Jante

We are used to think of Scandinavian Social Democracies as one of the best political models around the world, able to conjugate collectivism and liberalism. Probably not a perfect system – perfection is more of a utopia – but we haven’t seen much better yet. It’s a common belief that the main pillar of Social Democracy is the Law of Jante, a decalogue created by the Danish writer Aksel Sandemose in his novel of 1933 A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks.

The Law of Jante is a anti-individualist manifesto which takes its name from the imaginary city of Jante, representation of Nykøbing Mors, Sandemose’s town. This small and closed community was against the emerging of high standing personalities and, to avoid that, protected itself with a bunch of harsh rules:

  • You’re not to think you are anything special

  • You’re not to think you are as good as we are

  • You’re not to think you are smarter than we are

  • You’re not to imagine yourself better than we are

  • You’re not to think you know more than we do

  • You’re not to think you are more important than we are

  • You’re not to think you are good at anything

  • You’re not to laugh at us

  • You’re not to think anyone cares about you

  • You’re not to think you can teach us anything

    High poppy syndrome

Plus the special regulation: Perhaps you don’t think we know a few things about you? Despite the Danish origin, these precepts affected in particular the Swedish culture, especially for what concerns working environments, to guarantee harmony and uniformity. Obviously, Swedish people deny that and refer to it in a negative way, as it ruins personal initiatives. Anyway, the strong rejection indicates that somehow everyone has to do with the Law of Jante.

In the end, Sandemos took to extremes the stereotypes inside Scandinavian societies of the first half of XX century, that weakened through the years. But he left an important footprint, as anyone knows, in this region, his piece of literature.

The Swedish writer Stefan Ekberg even replied with his book Skit I Jantelagen, where Jantelagen means law of Jante and skit is pretty easily understandable because of the middle finger of the cover. Whether you talk about it seriously or ironically, this concept of social leveling is deeply rooted in those latitudes.

Crabs in a bucket

But actually is not alien to other cultures. In England they talk about the self-explaining “high poppy syndrome” and in the United States there is the attitude of the “crabs in a bucket”, after the behavior of those crustaceans that take back their fellows when they are trying to escape from their prison. Just a couple examples that show how, everywhere, thinking that homogenisation is better is frequent.

Basically, the satirical intent of Sandemose had always been ignored, so there were real attempts to correlate the Law of Jante with all the political theories of the last century. When, actually, is nothing serious, it’s just satire.


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