The Null Device


Recently, I was in Sweden and Finland, catching up with some friends and seeing Loney Dear playing with the Norrbotens Kammarorkester in Lapland (which was amazingly good). At one point, I got invited to a party in the north of Sweden, with the advice that I may want to bring my own beer. Which is what found me in the aisles of the Systembolaget in Luleå.

The Systembolaget, for those unfamiliar with this word, is the state-run liquor shop chain in Sweden. The government there has a monopoly on the sale of strong beer and all kinds of spirits, and does so through a chain of shops throughout the country. Only those shops may sell any beer stronger than about 2.5% 3.5% or spirits. This is a cast-in-iron law, with no exceptions, which has some peculiar consequences; for example, air passengers flying from Sweden to anywhere in the EU are unable to buy spirits at the airport shops because tax must be levied on spirits not being exported from the EU, and only the state can do that.

Anyway, when I went to buy some beer, I was expecting the experience to have a sort of bland paternalism to it, deliberately avoiding any attempt to encourage people to actually drink. Having read about changes in Sweden between the 1970s and now in Andrew Brown's Fishing In Utopia, I understood that the Systembolaget used to look somewhere between a bookmaker's shop and the waiting room of a methadone clinic, being essentially a paternalistic harm-minimisation programme for those who, for whatever reason, insist on drinking, allowing—but never encouraging—them to do so, but had evolved into more of a standard consumer experience. Nonetheless, I was expecting it to look a bit more minimal and, well, institutional; perhaps like a Lidl or Costco for alcohol, with dim fluorescent lighting and pallets of bottles labelled with only their name and alcohol content in a monospaced laser-printed typeface. Instead, I found something that would put a North London Waitrose to shame; a brightly lit space with huge selection of beers, ales, craft beers and microbrews; each one had, on its shelf, a label enumerating food combinations it goes well with. (The only section where it lagged behind was the gin section, which was somewhat small and mostly limited to mainstream British gins; I suspect Sweden isn't really a gin-drinking country.)

Later, when I recounted my Systembolaget experience, and the way it differed from my expectations, to a friend, they mentioned that the staff are also experts in beer and spirits, and able to make knowledgeable recommendations. The implication of this was that, if you live in Sweden and know your way around beer, the government will want to employ you to recommend ales and pilsners to consumers. Now I'm far from a hard Thatcherite or a believer in the Libertarian ideal of the minimal “nightwatchman state”, though, having grown up in an English-speaking world, in which the free-market principles articulated by Milton Friedman are as accepted as Copernican astronomy (even by those who regard themselves as being on The Left; while there, for example, are calls for the renationalisation of Britain's railways, for example, few would call for the Upper Crust franchises to be kicked out of stations and replaced with the return of the much-maligned British Rail sandwich), this strikes me as rather exotic and a little weird. Beer-recommending civil servants? A state liquor monopoly simultaneously discouraging and encouraging drinking? The State not as Orwellian Big Brother but as the older brother you go to to ask about how to enjoy vodka? We truly are no longer in the neoliberal Anglosphere.

Almost all the Nordic countries have state liquor monopolies. The exception is Denmark, but the other Scandinavians regard the Danes, with one foot on the mainland, to be halfway towards being the wild, laissez-faire Germans (and yes, that is a stereotype in Scandinavia; while in the English-speaking world, the Germans may be stereotyped (at best) as precise, humorless BMW engineers and/or Kraftwerkian Mensch-Maschinen, in Scandinavia, they're an unruly people who drink in the street and don't tax their beer.) In Iceland, the equivalent monopoly chain is known as Vinbuð, though there was talk a while ago about rolling back or eliminating its monopoly. The Finns are slightly more liberal, in that one can buy beer from ordinary supermarkets, where (as in Australia) it's stored in a segregated section which (as I discovered shortly after disembarking from a Helsinki-bound train at 8:30) is physically closed off at 9pm. For stronger spirits, one has to go to the state liquor shop, which is called, with characteristic Finnish lack of euphemism, Alko. And it's not only the quasi-socialist Jante Law societies of the Nordic world that do this; in the US, the conservatively Mormon, and staunchly Republican, state of Utah also has a state liquor monopoly. I imagine that their shop shelves probably look less enticing than those at the Systembolaget.

alcohol culture finland scandinavia sweden 2