Emergencies have a way of shaking up old, limiting beliefs. The coronavirus pandemic is pushing people back to the drawing board.
In the United States, many are noticing the institutional failures forced on us in recent decades, during what billionaire Warren Buffett calls the “class warfare” waged by the economic elite. The health crisis opens the door to bolder thinking. Even establishment politicians today consider moves that cost trillions, but their motivation is to save the existing system, not to transition to a better one.
For many Americans, however, it’s time for a system change. Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch. The American left in recent years has been shaking off its vision-aversion that began in the Reagan presidency.
In 2016 the Movement for Black Lives took the initiative with its vision: measures needed to make racial and economic justice a reality. Ever since, activists have been waking up to the need. Grassroots people in Vermont even created a statewide Vision Summit.
This trend is crucial for all activists, whether or not their favorite thing is to think about systemic change. History suggests that the social movements that make the most difference are those that project a vision, especially when it can be expressed in common sense terms.
Vision now threatens the U.S. political center
Establishment political leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, are in trouble. The past four years have not been kind to them, and not only because of the uncontrollable Trump. In 2016 Bernie Sanders emerged from the margins to gain political traction with bold alternatives. He proudly identified as a democratic socialist. He couldn’t be dismissed as an irrelevant left ideologue because he used the Nordic model as a vision-turned-practical, a brilliant success in the real world.
His argument is reinforced at this moment when, during the epidemic, we look across the Atlantic and find dramatic Nordic initiatives that are made possible by the advantages of their model.Embed from Getty Images
In March, the Danes — looking ahead because that’s what democratic socialists do — realized that after the epidemic the economy will re-start more quickly and smoothly if people simply return to their previous work. And the way to guarantee that is to pay their regular wages in the meantime.
Denmark therefore decided to “freeze” its economy for 13 weeks, maintaining payrolls while safety requires temporary lay-offs of most workers. Workers will receive their full wages while at home. The employers pay 25 percent of the cost while the government pays 75 percent. The plan means spending the equivalent in the United States of a $2.5 trillion stimulus!
The American Dream has fled the United States and gone to live in Scandinavia.
Even in ordinary times, the Nordic region is where you’ll find the best countries for women, for elders, for raising children, for equality, for environmental performance and even for individual freedom. Black Americans settling down in Oslo even find relief from most of the racism they encounter in the United States.
In all these ways and others, the Nordic countries far out-rank the United States — which is why this country is now rated as a “flawed democracy.”
The researchers issuing the World Happiness Report were struck by finding the Nordics consistently at the top. In the current report they devote a chapter trying to come up with reasons. They conclude that the Nordics’ superior performance has nothing to do with their size, or even historic homogeneity. (In recent years Nordic governments have welcomed migrants, diversified and still managed to hold their place in the top tier.)
What many Americans forget is that a century ago the Nordic countries were a mess. Poverty, inequality, lack of freedom drove millions to emigrate to Canada and the United States. Now the situation is reversed. Even by measures of social mobility, the American Dream has fled the United States and gone to live in Scandinavia. In my book “Viking Economics” I tell the dramatic story of how Sweden and Norway made their big turn-arounds.
All these facts cause worry among American political centrists, who may want some limited reforms here but nothing like the dramatic changes made by the Nordics — especially not the power shift within those countries that made possible their new model.
Ignoring the Nordics is proving impossible
For decades the American establishment counted on a simple strategy: ignore them! Academia used to conform. While criss-crossing the United States on book tours I’ve asked economics majors, both undergrads and graduate students, what they were being taught about the Nordic model. The answer was almost always “nothing.”
“Not even in comparative economics?” I asked.
“No, why should we learn about what they do in Scandinavia?”
In the Nordic model it’s the people who decide the direction of the economy. There’s a reason it’s called democratic socialism, or social democracy.
I offered a hint. “Because it’s the most successful economic model yet invented.”
Happily, the academic abdication is changing. I’m getting invitations from colleges and universities — even a business school — to describe the Nordic model. Bucknell University gathered all its Econ 101 students in an auditorium for the purpose, where I met wide-awake students full of questions.
Pundits come to the rescue of the establishment
Alert to how dangerously attractive the Nordics are becoming to Americans, establishment writers like David Brooks, Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Friedman are coming to the rescue. Some use the rhetorical device reminiscent of George Orwell’s “1984,” in which a banner proclaims: “War is peace.” Or, as Anu Partanen and Trevor Corson put it in the New York Times: “Finland Is a Capitalist Paradise.”
Rather than using the strategy of an earlier generation, warning us of the dangers of “collectivism,” current establishment writers acknowledge the Nordic success, then re-brand it as capitalism. The problem for these writers, however, is explaining how those pesky Nordics became so much more successful than our country, which is supposed to be capitalism’s shining star.
From my audiences the answer I hear most often is oil and gas. “The Nordics can provide all these goodies that we would like to have because they are afloat in oil.” (They overlook the oil and gas in our own backyard, sometimes literally.)
The trouble with the oil explanation is that only Norway has a treasure trove of oil and gas. Denmark has little, and Finland, Iceland and Sweden have none. Yet those other countries join Norway in the top of the heap on multiple international ratings.
The Nordic peoples exhibit enormous trust in their governments and other institutions. That trust pays off in addressing emergencies like the coronavirus.
What they do have in common, with some individual differences, is their economic model.
Actually, oil doesn’t account for even Norway’s main achievements. The North Sea oil didn’t come on line until the 1970s, and Norway pretty much got rid of poverty before that time — as did their Nordic cousins.
The Norwegian oil story does tip us off, however, to how mistaken it is to call these countries “capitalist.” When the oil was discovered the people had a national debate: who will own it, and how will it be handled?
Capitalists believe the answer to those questions is obvious: private ownership, the same as with other resources like coal.
In the Nordic model, on the contrary, it’s the people who decide the direction of the economy. There’s a reason it’s called democratic socialism, or social democracy.
After debating, Norwegians made several decisions. First, oil and gas would be owned by the people as a whole. Second, the government would set up a nationalized company to extract, refine and sell it. Third, the company would avoid a boom-and-bust cycle, protect the integrity of cities near the oil fields, employ a highly-paid, unionized workforce, and maintain the highest environmental standards. Further, the proceeds would benefit the people as a whole, and aside from a small fraction of profits going to fund national projects, the money would go into a nationally-owned “pension fund” for future generations.
Does this approach in any way resemble the capitalist history of United States and its global exploitation of resources, workers and communities?
Maybe it’s the culture
In his New York Times column “This is How the Scandinavians Got Great,” David Brooks attributes Nordic achievement to the evolution of their education system. As he says, in mid-19th century Denmark the folk high school movement began to make a powerful and lasting impact.
The masses of Danes after World War I launched a nonviolent struggle for economic justice, and then in 1924 became the first of the Nordic peoples to elect a social democratic prime minister.
Between harvest and spring planting, farmers could take time to attend the residential schools and learn in an atmosphere that nurtured inner awareness, cooperation, innovation and big picture critical thinking. Members of Danish working class families could come, too. Norwegians adopted the growing movement, and then the other Nordics.
David Brooks leaves out the role of folk high schools in building leadership for the growing cooperative movement, an alternative to capitalism that enabled both producers and consumers to “eliminate the middleman” and become more prosperous.
A bigger problem for Brooks is trying to link the new education to the building of “social trust.” True, today the Nordic peoples exhibit enormous trust in their governments and other institutions. That trust pays off in addressing emergencies like the coronavirus. Also true is that the education movement helped ordinary people build trust in each other, hence the coop movement.
Brooks clearly wants education to be able to play that role, given his alarm about Americans’ present lack of trust in the U.S. establishment. He seems to hope that, if the battered and starved U.S. educational system could somehow flourish once again, maybe we Americans, too, could trust each other and our institutions — and obtain the rewards of the Danish system!
The trouble is that the big-picture — critical thinking featured in Nordic education doesn’t necessarily yield trust. Instead, it gives tools for citizens to evaluate their social reality. They learn to discern what is — and is not — worthy of trust.
Danes educated in this way could both experience the positives of their community and see that their society in the 1800s was stuck between sentimental loyalty to a feudal past and dreams of riches in a future of competitive capitalism.
Most Danes wanted neither their feudal past nor a dog-eat-dog capitalist future. They were far more inspired by the socialist vision brought to them by the Social Democrats, which became Denmark’s largest party. Having gained literacy and confidence, they could read socialist materials and discuss them. Factory workers could form study groups.
Far from blessing capitalism, the masses of Danes after World War I launched a nonviolent struggle for economic justice, and then in 1924 became the first of the Nordic peoples to elect a social democratic prime minister. Networking with their socialist comrades in other Scandinavian countries, they laid early groundwork for what economists now call “the Nordic model.”
I found while teaching in a Norwegian high school that, even in modern times, Nordic education supports students to notice that there is such a thing as a class structure. The name of one of Norway’s government-subsidized daily newspapers is Klassekampen, or “Class Struggle.”
The pay-off of Nordic education continues, but not in the way David Brooks imagines. When in the mid-1980s Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were urging the view that economies thrive through deregulation, the Danish government tried to follow the neoliberal example.
In response, Danish workers declared a general strike and 100,000 surrounded the parliament building to stop neoliberal legislation from getting through. The government was forced to back off.
Denmark thereby avoided a deep recession of the kind that later, in 2008, marked the United States, United Kingdom and many other countries. The reason we know Denmark dodged the bullet in the 1980s is that the workers of Norway and Sweden were not so alert. Their governments went for the Reagan/Thatcher line and deregulated their banks.
The bankers went wild, created a bubble, and in the early 1990s most banks tottered, sending both countries toward the financial cliff.
The U.S. establishment is afraid to describe accurately the Nordic achievement because its success shows pragmatic Americans that a really different model is practical.
The crisis returned Sweden and Norway to their senses. Because their basic social democratic model was still intact, their governments could seize the largest banks, fire the senior management, make sure the shareholders didn’t get a krona and restore the previous regime of heavy regulation.
Norway learned its lesson so well that it chose public ownership of Norges Bank, the country’s biggest. By 2015 Norway’s public institutions (co-ops, municipalities, the state) owned roughly 60 percent of the country’s wealth — again not exactly what we expect of capitalism!
The lesson for David Brooks from the Nordics is the opposite of his hoped-for trust: a good education prepares workers and other thoughtful people to expect that, even within the Nordic model, class struggle will continue.
Why we must counter attacks on the Nordic model
In the next part of this series I’ll respond to more writers in the mainstream media who mis-characterize the Nordic model. There’s a reason to counter their effort to co-opt the most attractive vision we have.
The reason lies in how we win. Successful movements lift up a vision of change that we can describe in common-sense terms. A vision supports us to move from protest to change, from reacting to going on the offensive.
A vision enables us to reach the scale we need to win. It inspires people to sacrifice and transform their anger into a positive spirit that moves others to join.
The U.S. establishment is afraid to describe accurately the Nordic achievement because its success shows pragmatic Americans that a really different model, even though technically a hybrid of capitalism and socialism, is practical.
Of course U.S. radicals may want to go farther than today’s Nordics’ achievement — Nordic radicals do, too. But our call in the United States to “go farther” will be credible only when we show we can sustain a mass “movement of movements” to force major change.
If our movements cannot generate the power to get what the Nordics have, why would people join us when we proclaim even loftier goals?
These are some of the questions alive in this moment of motion and change.
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I’m wondering: do you have any recommendations for sources addressing the specific challenges and opportunities of organizing collective power and movement-building for system change raised by the unfolding Corona crisis? (e.g. How to work around the need for social distancing, how to take advantage of slow-downs, etc?
I see this as a fantastic moment to dialogue with our circle of activists (or desired circle of activists) about the three dimensions social movements need to maximize success:
analysis, vision, and strategy (A/V/S). A lot of that dialogue can be done via Zoom etc.
ANALYSIS (description of the present moment, of the major forces that got us to this moment and the forces that influence our chances for success). This tends to be our strong suit because so much activist-oriented writing is done by, well, analysts. (Think: Noam Chomsky!) At this pandemic-time the analysis could do well to emphasize the often obscure forces that are now more fully revealed, like the toll taken in the U.S. by the choice to have a profit-driven health care industry. But you and your circle might conclude you’re in good shape on analysis (racism, the patriarchy, class analysis, U.S. empire, war system, climate threat, etc.).
VISION (an alternative system, description in common sense terms of what we want to replace the existing system): Most activists evaluating themselves might conclude they’re deficient here: if we don’t like the war on terror, what’s our plan for security in a very threatening world? if we don’t like capitalism, what’s our alternative economic model? Obviously I think we’re making progress (Movement for Black Lives platform, Medicare for All, Green New Deal) on this front but few activists can describe it convincingly to their neighbors, so more work probably needs to be done.
I can’t see much hope for major positive change if people aren’t willing to work on vision. People will stick with amazingly self-destructive patterns if they don’t see an alternative.
STRATEGY (how to get from “here” to our visionary “there,” taking into account our analysis of favorable and unfavorable forces and the advantages of being in alignment with the values expressed in our vision. Nearly everyone is weak in this area, in my view. I’ve been pushing strategy for decades, leading workshops and writing (as I have for vision and analysis); a lot of my writing is archived on Waging Nonviolence, which has over 100 of my articles. I’m getting wonderful response from discussion groups focusing on HOW WE WIN (this morning did a global webinar on it, initiated from the UK). So maybe activists are getting ready to be serious about winning?
One reason why the economic elite has been doing especially well in the U.S. since the 1980s is they’ve sharpened up their analysis, vision, and especially their strategy. On the latter, they’ve shown a terrific capacity to play “the long game,” moving the dime toward fully grabbing the taxes that go into public schools, the Social Security system, etc. I’ve written articles on how well they strategize (archived in WNV) and we can learn from them. They actually do the work I’m advising here — and win.
Activists in the U.S. have access to tremendous intellectual power, often found in colleges but not only there. It’s time we tap the brains of ourselves and others who may not identify as “activists.” Let’s shift from being moralistic preachers and puritanical examiners of each others’ left-over habits of political incorrectness, neither of which produce powerful solidaristic movements, and instead focus (especially when we can’t do collective action) on strengthening our areas of weakness in A/V/S. Mix that with a generous portion of love (for ourselves and looking out for others) and this virus-time could turn out to be extremely useful.
it’s not just that it is not working but, it’s evil, divisive, militates against equality, ungodly, it is against natural justice, equity and good conscience in fact, it’s man inhumanity to man. I wonder why communist and socialist ideas among others are not being thought in a capitalist states well, that could be because they are aware of the evil they perpetrate hence, afraid of the unknown.
it’s time for a workable new, just, equitable system where power really rest with the people as described by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto and George Owen in Animal Farm. I love this, and I wish to study this system.
How long have these Scandinavian region practiced this Nordic Model?
I will love to join this circle (movement).
In order to develop and practice the model, the Scandinavians needed to end the historic domination of their economic elites. That happened at different times in each country, and to different degrees. You’ll find interesting the articles I’ve written for this site on Denmark, which was the first (electing its first Social Democratic prime minister in 1924) and then Sweden (1932 was a key date), and then Norway (1936). But then Denmark and Norway got slammed by the Second World War, when both were occupied by Nazi German armies! So then it was post-war recovery for them (Sweden stayed neutral and free of occupation during the war), but still, it mattered a lot to both that the economic elite couldn’t get back into dominance, so both Denmark and Norway could play catch-up with Sweden in the 1950s, although Sweden retained its lead in the 1960s.
So we’re talking about a model that was exciting and bold, but also nobody could be sure in advance whether it would work, and was subjected to interruptions for many by invasion and war.
For us, the amazing thing is that we DON’T have to find out if it will work, because thanks to the tremendous pluck and determination of others we know it will work, and can figure out how to adapt the model to each country’s own particularities. In the U.S. we’ve already done that on some features, like Social Security and Medicare, although the modifications we made weren’t the best because our economic elite prevented those measures from being generous. Obviously, the first step will be what I outline in my newest book How We Win: create a movement of movements that can create a power shift so we can roll up our sleeves and implement our version of the Nordic model.
But I don’t think we can win a power shift until we have a clear vision that can be expressed in common sense terms, because people who aren’t activists won’t join us if they don’t know where we want to go. (Do you get in a car with strangers if you don’t know where the car is going?)
That’s why using this coronavirus epidemic time to gain more unity behind our VISION is time well spent. And the most attractive starting point for a vision that I know is to start with what has over a half century’s successful track record: the Nordic model!
Thanks for this. I lent my copy of Viking Economics to a Norwegian-American friend and am looking forward to reading the rest of it. Years ago I read about Finland borrowing money after WWII so the could upgrade their Education al System and how well that paid off for the entire country. Thanks for your work, George.
I would like a discussion about our President having the power to get factories to change their production of materials to those desperately needed by the doctors and nurses in this pandemic and
the President’s refusal to do so. What can we the people do? Would this situation exist in the Nordic Countries?
Helen, I share your frustration that the President fails us on so many fronts including such an obvious need as materials needed by doctors and nurses. His power is such that I don’t see a time-urgent way of getting his to take a different course. His refusal has to do with his priority, which is to side with the corporate leadership that basically runs the country, according to the Princeton “oligarchy study.” (You can google it.) What we CAN do to build people’s movements that at last can redress the balance of power, is to assist people to see that it’s not just a Trumpian personal lapse, but is a systemic thing that shows up in lots of ways including the last tax bill that again benefitted the corporate elite and heightened economic inequality. If more people see that we need system change, AND know there’s a different way to operate an economy, then we can build the mass movements that are needed. That’s why I like to talk about the Nordic model: it’s not a dangerous or scary alternative to consider and — you’re right — over there the health care system is a priority and health care is considered a human right rather than something to be driven by profit.
The Nordics used to face similar frustrations of bad priorities until they waged their nonviolent revolutions. I tell more about what they did in the following articles.
I did not know of George Lakey before reading this. Great explanation.
This article is silly. How can you compare a nation of not quite 6 million (“current population of Denmark is 5,788,275 as of Tuesday, April 21, 2020, based on Worldometer elaboration of the latest United Nations data”) with the U.S. with a population of over 330 million? What would work in a small nation would never work in a large country. Also, Denmark has a hardline policy on immigration. They inhibit immigration and thus do not have the expenses and problems that the U.S. has.