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Rethinking Marxism

No More Strike Anywhere

by Benj Gerdes & Jennifer Hayashida

Essay with rephotographed archival images, 21 pages, 2008.

Our initial research and thinking on the Swedish Match King, Ivar Kreuger, is distilled into working notes, a drawing for what a film, video, and installation project could be. Kreuger is the subject of the larger project Room of the Sun. Published in the April 2008 issue of Rethinking Marxism.  Unlike October the RM website has non-journal content and many articles available free without subscription.

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Here is the text that concludes the piece:

Notes on “No More Strike Anywhere”

“Tänd en Solsticka och sprid glädje bland barn och gamla.” Light a Sunstick and spread joy amongst children and the elderly.

Solstickan Foundation slogan, circa 1936

This is an essay about neoliberalism’s prehistory, about the trajectory of Swedish social democracy, glimpsed here in the context of its beginnings in the early 1930s. This is also an essay about a man who portrayed himself as a modern-day Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from Zeus and brought this gift to mortals: the once-notorious Swedish entrepreneur, financier, and industrialist Ivar Kreuger (1880-1932).

In 1917, Kreuger founded Svenska Tändsticksaktiebolaget (The Swedish Matchstick Corporation). By 1931, he controlled an estimated 200 companies, both in Sweden and internationally. During the first third of the 20th century – and during the interwar years in particular – Kreuger capitalized on economic shifts in the global market, including the dawn of what we now term junk bonds and investment banking. At the height of his success, Ivar Kreuger was worth approximately 30 million Swedish kronor (the equivalent of 100 billion USD today) and had matchstick monopolies in at least 34 countries. He loaned money borrowed on the U.S. bond market at preferential rates to other nations in exchange for the aforementioned monopolies (actually long-term lease agreements on publicly-held trusts). We follow other scholars who argue that this type of privatized crisis management was a precursor to the formation of the International Monetary Fund. Consequently, we hold that Kreuger’s international loan and monopoly leases of publicly held trusts are more brutishly contemporary than they are quaint.

“No More Strike Anywhere” is based on research we initiated in the summer of 2007, and is a component of Room of the Sun, a larger project dealing with Kreuger’s empire of matches. When we began, we were interested in learning more about the development and implementation of neoliberal economics outside the United States: could we trace a kind of play between capitalist expansion and nation-state which might confuse prevailing wisdom about our “globalized” present? Kreuger’s combination of megalomania, financial creativity, benevolent philanthropy, and historical obscurity made him a compelling figure through which to pursue these questions. The context of Swedish social democracy and the international impression of that country as a cradle-to-grave welfare state quickly generated a variety of questions concerning the relationship between national ideology and the idea of a national economic hero/scoundrel. From a story-telling standpoint, Kreuger’s narrative lends itself to alternately tragic and scandalous interpretations: in 1932, following the U.S. stock market crash and the subsequent discovery that stocks issued by Kreuger were in fact without value, the Match King committed suicide in his Paris apartment. The circumstances surrounding his death remain disputed and this posthumous debate illustrates his continuing and contradictory significance as national traitor and/or saint.

Throughout our interviews and archival visits, we repeatedly returned to the question of what people saw in Ivar Kreuger that caused them to believe in his economic fictions, to — literally — buy into his stories. Consequently, we came to look more closely at not only the “facts” of his matchstick empire (banking statements, documentation of police investigations, courtroom testimonies) but also at its narrative texture and contradictions. In particular, what role did the media of the time play in promoting Kreuger’s agenda, and how do photographs from that same period reveal cracks in a narrative of economic and national stability? How does postcolonial hindsight and a “global” context challenge us to reinterpret interwar-era images of workers — in this instance, in Sweden and in India — as representations of an economic past, present, and future?

The visual vocabulary of “No More Strike Anywhere” is taken from archival materials that include newspaper clippings, 70-something shelf meters of documentation from criminal bankruptcy proceedings, visits to the matchstick museum in Jönköping, a book of photographs supposedly given to Kreuger by his Indian workers as a gesture of their gratitude on his 50th birthday, as well as interviews with a variety of Kreuger scholars and conspiracy theorists. We do not intend to tell a full story or answer questions regarding Kreuger’s persona or legacy: rather, the intention behind this project is to read the dialogue between images; to explore how our place in an U.S.-inflected economic and political present affects our understanding of another country’s economic history, and how that history in turn foreshadows contemporary narratives concerning economic successes and failures. A flowchart such as the one that begins this essay comprises the type of necessary fiction that economists and historians deal in, inherent with its implied relationships between facts, figures, dates, and events. “No More Strike Anywhere” is a flowchart of sorts, where images that bear a relationship to the subjective rearticulations of power hopefully point to the awkwardness and volatility of the relationship between image and story, as well as how identification with images has real economic and social consequences in the present.

In dialogue with each other, these structures of depicting and interpreting the world — charts, testimonies, and photographs alike — should be revealed as subjective, deliberate, and equally susceptible to attempts at ideological revision. Our utilization of a mode of documentary reference, where images might imply but also destabilize their historical contingency, offers an opportunity for complexity and confusion to have direct implications for our understanding (or confusion) in relation to the present. The idea is not to familiarize a reader with Ivar Kreuger the man, but rather to distance the reader from her/his relationship to abstract possibilities (or impossibilities) in the present, and in so doing to place the reader closer to questions having to do with national fiction-making and how we collectively can work to re-frame and re-articulate the present as we here seek to re-frame and re-articulate the past.

Jennifer Hayashida and Benjamin Gerdes Brooklyn, NY 2008

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Rethinking Marxism | 2008 | writing