Temporalities of Failure
"I think we have failed" confessed Swedish king Carl XVI Gustaf Thursday morning on national television. In a rare moment of political candor, the 74-year-old monarch confronted the anathema surrounding his country's unorthodox coronavirus strategy and vacillating backpedaling. The main effect of the remonstrance was a retrospective critique of the passing annus horribilis. Indeed, state broadcaster SVT released the statement as a teaser to the annual royal allocution that cyclically returns, like elsewhere around the globe, to perform a Nietzschean self-affirmation through excavation of the passing year's vicissitudes. The kairotic release of an excerpt a week ahead of the Christmas address both fostered the anticipation of that sententious reflection and surprised the national audience with the threatening temporality of classical cataplexis.
Simultaneously, the King's admonition summoned a divergent future, attempting to actualize an alternative approach to the pandemic. This prophetic method naturally evokes the custom of annual resolutions. New Year promises structure our temporality in providential — albeit not necessarily effective — chiaroscuro, whereby the past is steeped in the penumbra of error to allow for the future to crystallize as both auspicious and distinct. In times of global uncertainties ranging from virus diffusion to economic stagnation to political separation to vaccine validation, the straightforwardness of this millenarian narrative, with its optimistic retort to the bleak objectivity of current predictions, could hardly fail to convince in a country following a hazardous scenario.
Yet the most interesting temporal aspect of this royal address was neither its tragic review of 2020 nor its transparent prophecy for 2021, but the particular conception of time it conjured in the evocation of national failing — misslyckats in the King's words. In the definitions of the verb that ascribe failure to a personal subject, the unfortunate turn of events either stems from a circumstantial "accident," or blandly testifies to the absence of success in an undertaking. What then spurred outcry in the royal avowal? Not a subjective fallenness, but the objective impasse of the nation's immunological Sonderweg. The sin of fallible Swedes could have opened up the temporality of redemption through its very pronouncement; the "Sweden model" failing amounted to a definitive diagnosis circumscribing a past mistake.
Still, in the context of recurrent viral waves, to start again, as philosopher Mathieu Potte-Bonneville wrote in reference to Beckett, is not an attempt to "overcome failure through repetition, but rather repetition through failure." To escape from a vicious circle, one actually has to designate a point of no return. To take a seasonal allegory, the dilemma of decreasing payoffs faced by Sweden today echoes a cult scene from the 1979 comedy Les Bronzés font du ski: When to jump off a chairlift that has stopped? Further bedeviling this conundrum with endogenous change is the hurtful recognition of a self-undermining dynamic, as culpability is being retroactively imputed to a stubbornness about to be deemed at best ludicrous (in the case of the overly patient skier) and at worst suicidal (imagine Tegnell as an austere Jean-Claude Dusse).
At the risk of adding insult to injury, we could end facetiously by suggesting a timing lesson from Sweden's fraternal rival. Let us therefore listen to the 2015 hit song Stole the Show by Norwegian DJ Kygo as a parodic anticipation of the neighbors' coronadventure, camouflaged as a theatrical metaphor for a couple realizing that its "fake relationship" is "going nowhere." As already suggested, the King's confession invokes a kind of irreversible misfortune reassuring the country that there is no heroes, villains, one to blame, whilst adding that the thrill is gone. That trill was palpable domestically, with Swedes enjoying exceptional social liberties throughout the year, as well as globally: you know [you]'re playing to a full house when the world follows your case(s) en masse with a mix of consideration, jealousy, and exasperation. Our debut was a masterpiece, His Majesty could have added — perhaps slightly emphatically — alluding to Sweden perplexing even its most ardent sceptics with the early fruits of its exceptionalism, when it momentarily seemed able to steal the show despite the long odds.
As Kygo's chorus admits, We used to have it all — hear: a blissful springtime, inebriated by the prospect of collective immunity — But now's our curtain call: after a last gasp of enthusiasm in September, Carl Gustaf is now attempting a national Pauline conversion. If he succeeds, Sweden could soon be watching as the credits all roll down, witnessing the descent of accountability onto a failure whose responsibility was spread across the population. The fatalities accumulated in the path-dependent hope of herd immunity would then have to be painfully acknowledged as sunk cost – or, should we sing nostalgically, as wilted roses fill[ing] the stage. Despite his abbreviated finance studies, the Norwegian DJ might have had a thing or two to teach his neighbors about the tragedy of the commons.
Thomas Gmür is a doctoral student in political science and international relations at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva. Following a Bachelor's degree in Political Science at Yale University, he continues to be perplexed by questions of political philosophy, in particular, about democratic temporalities and potentialities. He is currently working on a thesis on the concept of "dysfunctional democracy," written as a critical approach to the ergonomics of political bodies. In parallel to his studies, he cultivates an athletic passion for middle-distance running.