Northern Europe: Perhaps America CAN Learn From Europe; or Are We TOO Special?

I’ve been to Iceland – not exactly mainland Scandinavia but close enough for me to have experienced some of the culture.  The weather was good thanks to the Gulfstream’s licking at its shores.  The people are some of the best you’re ever likely to meet.  The food is in a class by itself but I had second helpings.  Medical care was virtually free but that’s because of Iceland’s special status genetically.

It may be that other countries – besides the USA – have tried approaches toward creating a civil and equitable society and have succeeded where others have failed.  It would be foolish and reckless to ignore what the Nordic model European countries have achieved – or suffered (


Swedes and Norwegians Broke the Power of the ‘1 Percent’

 George Lakey

While many of us are work­ing to en­sure that the Oc­cupy move­ment will have a last­ing im­pact, it’s worth­while to con­sider other coun­tries where masses of peo­ple suc­ceeded in non­vi­o­lently bring­ing about a high de­gree of democ­racy and eco­nomic jus­tice. Swe­den and Nor­way, for ex­am­ple, both ex­pe­ri­enced a major power shift in the 1930s after pro­longed non­vi­o­lent strug­gle. They “fired” the top 1 per­cent of peo­ple who set the di­rec­tion for so­ci­ety and cre­ated the basis for some­thing dif­fer­ent.

Both coun­tries had a his­tory of hor­ren­dous poverty. When the 1 per­cent was in charge, hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple em­i­grated to avoid star­va­tion. Under the lead­er­ship of the work­ing class, how­ever, both coun­tries built ro­bust and suc­cess­ful economies that nearly elim­i­nated poverty, ex­panded free uni­ver­sity ed­u­ca­tion, abol­ished slums, pro­vided ex­cel­lent health care avail­able to all as a mat­ter of right and cre­ated a sys­tem of full em­ploy­ment. Un­like the Nor­we­gians, the Swedes didn’t find oil, but that didn’t stop them from build­ing what the lat­est CIA World Fact­book calls “an en­vi­able stan­dard of liv­ing.”

Nei­ther coun­try is a utopia, as read­ers of the crime nov­els by Stieg Lars­son, Kurt Wal­len­der and Jo Nes­bro will know. Crit­i­cal left-wing au­thors such as these try to push Swe­den and Nor­way to con­tinue on the path to­ward more fully just so­ci­eties. How­ever, as an Amer­i­can ac­tivist who first en­coun­tered Nor­way as a stu­dent in 1959 and learned some of its lan­guage and cul­ture, the achieve­ments I found amazed me. I re­mem­ber, for ex­am­ple, bi­cy­cling for hours through a small in­dus­trial city, look­ing in vain for sub­stan­dard hous­ing. Some­times re­sist­ing the ev­i­dence of my eyes, I made up sto­ries that “ac­counted for” the dif­fer­ences I saw: “small coun­try,” “ho­mo­ge­neous,” “a value con­sen­sus.” I fi­nally gave up im­pos­ing my frame­works on these coun­tries and learned the real rea­son: their own his­to­ries.

Then I began to learn that the Swedes and Nor­we­gians paid a price for their stan­dards of liv­ing through non­vi­o­lent strug­gle. There was a time when Scan­di­na­vian work­ers didn’t ex­pect that the elec­toral arena could de­liver the change they be­lieved in. They re­al­ized that, with the 1 per­cent in charge, elec­toral “democ­racy” was stacked against them, so non­vi­o­lent di­rect ac­tion was needed to exert the power for change.

In both coun­tries, the troops were called out to de­fend the 1 per­cent; peo­ple died. Award-win­ning Swedish film­maker Bo Wider­berg told the Swedish story vividly in Ådalen 31, which de­picts the strik­ers killed in 1931 and the spark­ing of a na­tion­wide gen­eral strike. (You can read more about this case in an entry by Max Ren­nebohm in the Global Non­vi­o­lent Ac­tion Data­base.)

The Nor­we­gians had a harder time or­ga­niz­ing a co­he­sive peo­ple’s move­ment be­cause Nor­way’s small pop­u­la­tion—about three mil­lion—was spread out over a ter­ri­tory the size of Britain. Peo­ple were di­vided by moun­tains and fjords, and they spoke re­gional di­alects in iso­lated val­leys. In the nine­teenth cen­tury, Nor­way was ruled by Den­mark and then by Swe­den; in the con­text of Eu­rope Nor­we­gians were the “coun­try rubes,” of lit­tle con­se­quence. Not until 1905 did Nor­way fi­nally be­come in­de­pen­dent.

When work­ers formed unions in the early 1900s, they gen­er­ally turned to Marx­ism, or­ga­niz­ing for rev­o­lu­tion as well as im­me­di­ate gains. They were over­joyed by the over­throw of the czar in Rus­sia, and the Nor­we­gian Labor Party joined the Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tional or­ga­nized by Lenin. Labor didn’t stay long, how­ever. One way in which most Nor­we­gians parted ways with Lenin­ist strat­egy was on the role of vi­o­lence: Nor­we­gians wanted to win their rev­o­lu­tion through col­lec­tive non­vi­o­lent strug­gle, along with es­tab­lish­ing co-ops and using the elec­toral arena.In the 1920s strikes in­creased in in­ten­sity. The town of Ham­mer­fest formed a com­mune in 1921, led by work­ers coun­cils; the army in­ter­vened to crush it. The work­ers’ re­sponse verged to­ward a na­tional gen­eral strike. The em­ploy­ers, backed by the state, beat back that strike, but work­ers erupted again in the iron­work­ers’ strike of 1923–24.

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The Nor­we­gian 1 per­cent de­cided not to rely sim­ply on the army; in 1926 they formed a so­cial move­ment called the Pa­tri­otic League, re­cruit­ing mainly from the mid­dle class. By the 1930s, the League in­cluded as many as 100,000 peo­ple for armed pro­tec­tion of strike break­ers—this in a coun­try of only 3 mil­lion!The Labor Party, in the mean­time, opened its mem­ber­ship to any­one, whether or not in a union­ized work­place. Mid­dle-class Marx­ists and some re­form­ers joined the party. Many rural farm work­ers joined the Labor Party, as well as some small land­hold­ers. Labor lead­er­ship un­der­stood that in a pro­tracted strug­gle, con­stant out­reach and or­ga­niz­ing was needed to a non­vi­o­lent cam­paign. In the midst of the grow­ing po­lar­iza­tion, Nor­way’s work­ers launched an­other wave of strikes and boy­cotts in 1928.

The De­pres­sion hit bot­tom in 1931. More peo­ple were job­less there than in any other Nordic coun­try. Un­like in the U.S., the Nor­we­gian union move­ment kept the peo­ple thrown out of work as mem­bers, even though they couldn’t pay dues. This de­ci­sion paid off in mass mo­bi­liza­tions. When the em­ploy­ers’ fed­er­a­tion locked em­ploy­ees out of the fac­to­ries to try to force a re­duc­tion of wages, the work­ers fought back with mas­sive demon­stra­tions.

Many peo­ple then found that their mort­gages were in jeop­ardy. (Sound fa­mil­iar?) The De­pres­sion con­tin­ued, and farm­ers were un­able to keep up pay­ment on their debts. As tur­bu­lence hit the rural sec­tor, crowds gath­ered non­vi­o­lently to pre­vent the evic­tion of fam­i­lies from their farms. The Agrar­ian Party, which in­cluded larger farm­ers and had pre­vi­ously been al­lied with the Con­ser­v­a­tive Party, began to dis­tance it­self from the 1 per­cent; some could see that the abil­ity of the few to rule the many was in doubt.

By 1935, Nor­way was on the brink. The Con­ser­v­a­tive-led gov­ern­ment was los­ing le­git­i­macy daily; the 1 per­cent be­came in­creas­ingly des­per­ate as mil­i­tancy grew among work­ers and farm­ers. A com­plete over­throw might be just a cou­ple years away, rad­i­cal work­ers thought. How­ever, the mis­ery of the poor be­came more ur­gent daily, and the Labor Party felt in­creas­ing pres­sure from its mem­bers to al­le­vi­ate their suf­fer­ing, which it could do only if it took charge of the gov­ern­ment in a com­pro­mise agree­ment with the other side.

This it did. In a com­pro­mise that al­lowed own­ers to re­tain the right to own and man­age their firms, Labor in 1935 took the reins of gov­ern­ment in coali­tion with the Agrar­ian Party. They ex­panded the econ­omy and started pub­lic works pro­jects to head to­ward a pol­icy of full em­ploy­ment that be­came the key­stone of Nor­we­gian eco­nomic pol­icy. Labor’s suc­cess and the con­tin­ued mil­i­tancy of work­ers en­abled steady in­roads against the priv­i­leges of the 1 per­cent, to the point that ma­jor­ity own­er­ship of all large firms was taken by the pub­lic in­ter­est. (There is an entry on this case as well at the Global Non­vi­o­lent Ac­tion Data­base.)

The 1 per­cent thereby lost its his­toric power to dom­i­nate the econ­omy and so­ci­ety. Not until three decades later could the Con­ser­v­a­tives re­turn to a gov­ern­ing coali­tion, hav­ing by then ac­cepted the new rules of the game, in­clud­ing a high de­gree of pub­lic own­er­ship of the means of pro­duc­tion, ex­tremely pro­gres­sive tax­a­tion, strong busi­ness reg­u­la­tion for the pub­lic good and the vir­tual abo­li­tion of poverty. When Con­ser­v­a­tives even­tu­ally tried a fling with ne­olib­eral poli­cies, the econ­omy gen­er­ated a bub­ble and headed for dis­as­ter. (Sound fa­mil­iar?)

Labor stepped in, seized the three largest banks, fired the top man­age­ment, left the stock­hold­ers with­out a dime and re­fused to bail out any of the smaller banks. The well-purged Nor­we­gian fi­nan­cial sec­tor was not one of those coun­tries that lurched into cri­sis in 2008; care­fully reg­u­lated and much of it pub­licly owned, the sec­tor was solid.

Al­though Nor­we­gians may not tell you about this the first time you meet them, the fact re­mains that their so­ci­ety’s high level of free­dom and broadly-shared pros­per­ity began when work­ers and farm­ers, along with mid­dle class al­lies, waged a non­vi­o­lent strug­gle that em­pow­ered the peo­ple to gov­ern for the com­mon good.


About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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