Saturday, February 4, 2012

How Swedes and Norwegians Broke the Power of the "One Percent"

Norway's Flag

How Swedes and Norwegians Broke the Power of the "One Percent"

Monday 30 January 2012
by: George Lakey, Waging Nonviolence 

                       Swedish flag
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.
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.
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  • Lazynerd
    the problem is norwegians 60-80 years ago were smarter than americans today -- the 99% is being led to slaughter and they will only realize it at the very end; by then it will be too late

    i think americans should first start thinking for themselves instead of listening to pundits on media networks -- that'll be a step in the right direction.
  • For a moment, I was excited to think that this could happen in America... then I remembered, our population is too dumb to know what is in their best interest without someone on the teleboob telling them how to think and feel.

    I want to say "Yes We Can", but reality hits and all I can say is "One day a million years from now, I hope they can"
  • Little_Big_Tug
    When we're well-fed, entertained (distracted?) and spoon-fed a constant drip of misinformation and meaningless data, how easy is it for us to settle into a routine? We're sheep; our wool is the salary shorn from our wallets for a shiny new widget, a pull-tab daydream of riches, and a pilgrimage to Disneyland maybe once every few years. We're so deep in our ruts it's hard to see the sky.

    Well, that's a cheery thought, huh? I'm Norwegian, sue me. My grandparents fled Norway when this shit happened a hundred years ago.

    I still see strength in character when I look for it in people, but I just don't know how to fix this; I cannot see enough . . . . determination. Not often enough. Not yet. Maybe when they murder Social Security and people begin starving, maybe when they make organizing and unions illegal, maybe some determination will grow.

    The slime-balls have won. Maybe that will change some day, I hope it doesn't hurt too much. Me? I think Central America is looking fantastic. Vaya con perro, amigos! Y Dios!

  • Jose, you must never give up the fight! We need you. We must keep one another's spirit alive and well in these years. Each one writing here is part of the population. There are many smart ones among us. Keep the faith!
  • bobmann55
    The one% learns from history too. That's why they always keep around(at least) half of the work force health insured and with relatively decent jobs. If they do that they can totally f*** the other half without any real problems.
  • Chad
    You're absolutely right. Wages are just enough people have something to lose if they try to strike but not enough to actually get ahead. Public health isn't usally availible to adults in most states so that they can't afford to have employer health insurance and not afford to have it either. The 1% know how to keep people in that narrow area where they're damned if they do and damned if they don't so they don't know what to do at all.
  • gew60
    But I think that greed is getting the best of them
    and is showing us their true colors...Look at
    Rmoney for example, he tried to keep income
    and tax rate private but was finally forced to show
    us...but the ironic part is that he will pull it off
    and make us believe that he rate is just fine...Obama
    says 30%, what happened to Clinton's tax rate?
    No special rate for capital gains, tax it as income...
  • Blondin
    “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
    ― John Steinbeck
  • Inspiring lecture to enlarge a necessary discussion. Good examples to promote possible solutions, like in the latest part about commonly owned banks. Thank you for providing this background article with relevant links.
  • Jsheats
    I saw Ådalen 31 many years ago, and it made a very strong impression. The one key difference we have to consider, in my opinion, is that most people there did not think they had a likely upward mobility path, whereas many lower-income people here believe, if only implicitly or subconsciously, that they are "just around the corner" from joining the ranks of the rich. Organizers need to reach out to these people to get them to realize where their self-interest really lies.
  • How right you are! They vote for Bush, or whoever, because they think they might 'make it'. It's all so sick, really. It's like a need, somehow, for a rich, powerful 'daddy' to run the show, someone to emulate. Emulate Romney? Becoming a vulture has never been one of my goals!
  • Little_Big_Tug
    I'd love to emulate Romney, but fortunately - I picked the right parents. Alas, their wealth was their children instead of money, and as educators, they clothed themselves in the pride of sacrifice rather than Brooks Brothers.
    Romney should emulate me!
  • La Superchica
    Gives me hope and renewed energy vis-a-vis my own non-violent political activism to read such an account. The US has little historical memory. You help relieve that deficiency with your excellent work.
  • The social justice advocate is a rare bird here in Sedona, AZ. The sheeple here just don't have the guts to get up and do anything much about anything. The local newspaper, the publisher of the local paper, the Red Rock News doesn't permit coverage of any controversial social issues. The coverage by cable news doesn't do much to accurately report. CNN certainly does what it can to paint the Occupy Wall Street in a negative light. MSNBC does better, except for what is intentionally left out. And of course, Fox stirs up negative emotions via unmitigated lies. It actually creates anger addicts.

    In the national media these days, the millions of citizens who are unemployed or homeless, or are losing their homes, have been nullified. Out-of-sight out-of-mind. That way the ones who are still working and doing okay can be mesmerized into going on with life as usual -- you know, spending money and keeping whatever remains of the economy going.

    The 99% are on to something, but we'll need a lot more to stand up and be counted to accomplish anything along the lines of the Scandinavian countries. I don't even think a die-off would wake up the living dead. It could be happening right now. Do you think the media would cover it? That could be bad for business, you know.
  • sanctuary765
    It's worth a look to see how it's done elsewhere, fiorst we thrown out the bums who have bought out of media, our message and even our congress. Show the 1% their $$ can't buy OUR elections, vote Democrat and help this President do what he set out to do..SAFE AMERICA! He can't do it with anger and rage...Voting in a republican or more Tea Parety idiots will not "show him".It just hurts us all. Give him the people he needs to win, for US..If people throw this election to the GOP for anger, we all lose worse then under Bush.
  • I'll work for alternatives aren't just too scary to contemplate!
  • Jeffro2012
    they shot Joe Hill,
    they shot him dead
    they filled his manly heart with lead
    Ok!someone take it away from here,bet you ca'nt!!.If you are fair dinkum maybe you should take the time to learn the words of a real working mans ballad,
    God bless.
  • angelsspeak
    Great article.
  • President92
    I know this. I lived in Sweden for three years. When the violence-based socialism in the USSR collapsed, I hoped Russia would choose something close to Scandinavian Social-Democracy.
  • Forcgd
    Excellent article! I hope this gets read widely. We need many more like this. We need to learn specifically HOW other countries and cultures have developed strong "immune systems" against the cancerous onslaught of economic terrorism.

    Very interesting how old-fashioned organizing and coalition building, along with a determined spirit and willingness to take risks (read: risk your life) overtime leads to results that last for decades. We simply need to institutionalize common sense and decency.

    As to those who say we are too stupid here.... too many watching the boob-tube. Too many who think they, too, can be RICH! someday and so cling to the casino economy. Well, maybe. But a good start would be to educate these people (on the TEE-VEE!) about examples like Norway and Sweden. Heck, just getting this information on public television would be a radical idea. I have been hungry for information about how other countries "do" education, health care, social security, child care, etc but it is hard to find information.

    So, thanks for the article!
  • Absolutely, we need to study this history. And you are correct! Freedom to run our own lives takes the ultimate risk. I don't even like admitting that, as the thought of putting my life on the line is a lot to let in, but I understand, from history, this is what it takes to obtain justice and peace from oppressors. Norway did exactly what We Need to Do..but the people have to stand up, organize, and do it. And we are beginning to. Thanks for your comments on this great article!
  • Leneaux
    Lola, you speak to my heart. What is really valuable is worth dying for. However, I am not sure that the beast Capitalism can be killed without violence. I wish it were no so and hope I am wrong. Vive la revolution!
  • aze
    "Neither country is a utopia, as readers of the crime novels by Stieg Larsson, Kurt Wallender and Jo Nesbro will know. "
    Sure Sweden isn't an utopia, but please, Stieg Larsson writes fiction the violence depicted there is not realistic. Drama you know.
  • Andy Morris
    Wow! I had been wondering how it came to be. very informative, maybe something like that can happen here
  • Robert B. Singleton, Retired. Writer, freelance photojournalist. Vietnam vet. Comm/Computer tech. Finance Background. Miami-Dade County CERT.
    The French did it best.

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