Kindergartens: How an invention of the capitalist zeitgeist accidentally «solved» a problem of capitalism

When I moved from Germany to Norway, many phenomena of day-to-day life that might surprised other immigrants were nothing new for me, both on account of cultural similarities between the two European countries and because I had spent a lot of time in Norway as a child and later in life, with my parents having had Norwegian friends when I was little and my hometown being considered Germany’s «gateway to Scandinavia» due to its large ferry harbour with daily departures to Oslo, Stockholm, and – though it has since been phased out when I was ten years old – the Danish island of Langeland.

But, returning as an adult with my own life experience and awaiting a child with my Norwegian partner, there were a couple of things that did – and do – strike me as odd. One of them, which I thought a lot about, is that preschool education begins at as low as one year of age here. In Germany, entry age for most kindergartens is at three years. I was wondering about the implications, and discussed it with my partner, who would argue that this arrangement in the Nordic countries has its background in neoliberalism, encouraging parents to return to their jobs as quickly as possible after having a child.

Now, preschool education became an institution (note: I’m using the term «institution» in its sociological sense, meaning an practice within society that is established within law and culture; in this sense, marriage or pension would be other examples fo «institutions») in the 19th century, at the same time as «modern» industrial, capitalist society became all but universal. So far, my partner, who is an educator with broad general education and international perspective from political work, appears to have a point with their theory.

If we imagine a preindustrial, primarily agricultural civilisation, there is little need for children to enter an institution like that. When their parents work in the fields or on the farm, they would be around, within calling range, playing with other children or perhaps being watched by mothers with infants too young to roam around freely. We now know from decades of tedious research that even a serf tending the feudal lord’s land – in Norway, that feudal lord would often be the church – rarely had to work more than 15 to 20 hours a week, so there would be ample time for child-rearing, at least outside the sowing and harvest seasons. That said, the farmers historically held a strong position in Scandinavian societies and the vast majority of them were free men.

Even in a society where fishing is the primary livelyhood, such as large parts of preindustrial Norway, mothers would stay at home tending to the house and children as the fathers laboured on the sea. This is not to understate the relatively high status women had in preindustrial Scandinavia, compared to other European societies, or that agriculture still played an important role especially in the broad green valleys further inland, but in any way, the children would be taken care of until they could participate in chores on a larger scale or, if they were lucky enough, receive an education.

Now, all of that changed when employment became the primary mode of production for the masses. Though Scandinavia is, in many ways, on the forefront of women’s rights in an international perspective, women entering the job market was hardly a feminist endeavour at the time. If 50% of the population weren’t employed, they couldn’t generate profits for the capitalist classes (a fraction of which would then be paid back to them as wages; this is literally just Marx 101). Furthermore, as the bourgeoisie expanded their power, independent farmers and fishermen struggled to compete and were forced into employment as well. The merchants in the cities, from which the bourgeois class emerged, also controlled the prices of goods, and with the effects of all these developments accumulating in modern times, women were forced into the job market as a single worker couldn’t feed a family as production increased.

So it becomes obvious that we can see a clear connection between the emergence of capitalism, the dissolution of traditional gender roles and the need for preschool institutions.

To quote from the original Manifesto of the Communist Party,

Die aus dem Untergang der feudalen Gesellschaft hervorgegangene moderne bürgerliche Gesellschaft hat die Klassengegensätze nicht
aufgehoben. Sie hat nur neue Klassen, neue Bedingungen der Unter-
drückung, neue Gestaltungen des Kampfes an die Stelle der alten ge-
setzt.
Unsere Epoche, die Epoche der Bourgeoisie, zeichnet sich jedoch
dadurch aus, daß sie die Klassengegensätze vereinfacht hat. Die ganze
Gesellschaft spaltet sich mehr und mehr in zwei große feindliche Lager, in zwei große, einander direkt gegenüberstehende Klassen: Bourgeoisie
und Proletariat.

[…]

Die Bourgeoisie, wo sie zur Herrschaft gekommen, hat alle feudalen, patriarchalischen, idyllischen Verhältnisse zerstört. Sie hat die
buntscheckigen Feudalbande, die den Menschen an seinen natürlichen
Vorgesetzten knüpften, unbarmherzig zerrissen und kein anderes Band
zwischen Mensch und Mensch übriggelassen als das nackte Interesse,
als die gefühllose »bare Zahlung«.

«The bourgeois society that has emerged from the decline of feudal society has not abolished the class antagonisms. It has merely established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggles in the place of the old ones. But our era, the era of the bourgeoisie, is characterised by the way it has simplified the class antagonisms: All of society is now split into two large hostile, polar camps: bourgeoisie and proletariat. […] The bourgeoisie, where it has come to power, has laid waste to all the feudal, patriarchal, idyllic [this part is often misinterpreted; these attributes are a list] conditions. It has mercilessly torn apart all the colourful feudal ties which tied man to his immediate superiors and left no other ties between human being and human being other than naked interest, the emotionless ‘payment in cash’.»

At the same time, Scandinavian societies sport an unusual amount of everyday solidarity between people; the Norwegian «dugnad mentality», named after a kind of voluntary, civil society subotnik where neighbours, colleagues or schoolchildren and their parents all come together to for example clean out a garage, plant in a garden or paint some ugly old walls in a public school, is a much-cited example for this. There is a kind of openness and public discourse in these countries that can hardly be compared to anything in «Western» societies, which is based on mutual trust. People keep their doors and bicycles unlocked and leave their children outside in trolleys while fetching a coffee from the bakery.

While this mentality may have its roots in a close-knit fishing and farming society lasting into the 20th century, it leaves you wondering if the early socialisation in kindergartens and all the early social stimulus that comes with it might have anything to do with it. Perhaps the neoliberal reformers and their feminist allies, all aiming to get parents into the job market, unwittingly helped the nuclear family, the ideal core unit of neoliberal capitalist production, with socialising their offspring into supportive and approacheable individuals by means of a public institution (in the vulgar sense of the term, this time). Or perhaps everything is going according to plan. Perhaps this air of consensus and good neighbourliness is perfectly in tune with the values of neoliberalism and helps keep the system alive. Or perhaps it is much more complicated than that – after all, Sweden’s «cuddle capitalism» provides parents with two whole years of paid parental leave. And after all, preschool education has become a massive industry in its own right – since the 90s, more than half of all kindergartens in Norway are private ones.

There is much to discuss and to think about, but one thing we can be sure of – the way we think about family says a lot about the way we think about society as a whole.

Thank you for reading! I am currently, trying to become a more active blogger while stuck between the end of my partner’s parental leave and the beginning of my own. You can support this endeavour by throwing a few coins at me – every donation helps me put aside time for writing.