Social Democracy Is Not Enough: A Critique of the Nordic Model

In The End of History and the Last Man (1992), political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared capitalism and liberal democracy to be the “end of history” and the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.” There could be significant reform of the system to increase the living standards of its population, but specifically in Fukuyama’s view the end of the Cold War was a signal that capitalist liberal democracy had prevailed as the “final form of human government” and was here to stay permanently. Even among mainstream left-wing discourse in the United States, as with Occupy Wall St. or Bernie Sanders supporters, private ownership of the means of production (capitalism) is sacred but can be pushed towards something viewed as very humanitarian like Scandinavian social democracy. The nations which feature this Nordic system are lauded for their very high living standards brought on by free and effective healthcare, education, transportation, and cleanliness. Unknown to most supporters however, Nordic countries are absolutely rife with problems, and do not feature an ideal socio-economic system. This blog post will highlight both the philosophical and sociological problems that exist with this system and prescribe a completely left-wing solution.

A philosophical problem with societies that primarily concentrate on maximizing welfare is that they do not appeal to other ethical intuitions that we may have as socio-political standards. Consider the hypothetical case of a moral slaveholder who treats his slaves with a great level of care and respect. The slaves work the slaveowner’s property, and all of the profit the slaves generate for the slaveowner is exclusively the owner’s, but the owner does not whip or abuse his slaves, and tends to their needs by allowing them to reside in his lavish house and eat good food. Most of us will recognize that intuitively there is still something seriously wrong there, and that no matter how high the living standards are for the slaves, a society where people are treated as property and cannot freely move about is deeply flawed. The point of this hypothetical is not to literally claim that Scandinavian countries are full of moral slaveowners, but that we have multiple ethical intuitions beyond welfare when developing a political society, like democracy or the freedom of association. In this regard, Scandinavian nations must also be examined by how democratic their politics or economics are, and now we will examine how unfortunately they are controlled strongly and plutocratically by a wealthy capitalist class.

Brave New World, commonly viewed as one of the greatest novels in history, detailed a society made comfortable through drugs and complex conditioning but ruled by an oligarchic class.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley detailed a society made comfortable through drugs and complex conditioning but ruled by an oligarchic class.

A classic Marxist analysis of governments that rule capitalist economies argues that since only a small minority of people under capitalism privately own the means of production and enrich themselves of it, they also consequently have the greatest amount of wealth to undemocratically and disproportionately influence government for their own self-interest. A popular study from 2014 showed this to be the case with the United States,1 but specifically with the Nordic nations the threat is known as neoliberalism, a pro-capitalist economic doctrine that focuses on privatization, deregulation, and reduction in government spending which directly attack the founding humanitarian and welfare systems of Scandinavian nations. In Norway, the current right-wing administration upheld the doctrine by attacking university funding, wealth taxes, and benefits for parents of disabled children while reducing workplace rights.2 Denmark, arguably the most welfarist and successful of all the Nordic countries, is facing falling unionization, rapidly rising inequality, benefits cutting, and the most clear example of classism with 19% of its state-owned energy company being sold to Goldman Sachs.3 These austerity packages and neoliberal assaults show that even the most humane and developed capitalist societies will ultimately be unstable if their powerful capitalist classes are not eliminated.

Two influential sociological theories, titled dependency and world-systems theory, show that inequality and economic exploitation does not have to be merely limited between classes inside a nation but can even thrive between entire nations on the global stage. Dependency theory argues that poorer and undeveloped nations in the Third World provide cheap labor, natural resources, and other benefits for developed First World nations, and that the high living standards of developed nations are directly dependent on this inequality. Moreover, the theory argues that developed nations enforce a political and cultural hegemony to maintain this status quo through methods such as imperialism, banking, media control, etc. This would mean that the high living standards of Scandinavian nations exist because of this dependency, and that a Third World free from Western hegemony would seriously jeopardize the humanitarian systems of Nordic nations. In Norway for example, a notable portion of its taxation is collected through the profitable and multinational oil firm Statoil, the majority of which is owned by the Norwegian state. The extremely internationalist economies of Nordic countries, which very commonly deal with the Third World, show how tremendously dependent the Scandinavians are on the Third World and on maintaining a global inequality. Decades ago, before world-systems theory was even developed by social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein in the 1970s, Che Guevara observed this hegemony between the First and Third World in a speech in 1961:

We, politely referred to as “underdeveloped,” in truth are colonial, semi-colonial or dependent countries. We are countries whose economies have been distorted by imperialism, which has abnormally developed those branches of industry or agriculture needed to complement its complex economy. “Underdevelopment,” or distorted development, brings a dangerous specialization in raw materials, inherent in which is the threat of hunger for all our peoples. We, the “underdeveloped,” are also those with the single crop, the single product, the single market. A single product whose uncertain sale depends on a single market imposing and fixing conditions. That is the great formula for imperialist economic domination.

A sweatshop in Bangladesh (photo by Saybrook Productions).

A sweatshop in Bangladesh (photo by Saybrook Productions).

On the topics of hegemony and imperialism, another important issue with Scandinavian nations, Sweden in particular, is their direct contribution to the violent and imperialistic foreign policies of countries like the United States, policies which are widely condemned and detested. Sweden is recognized for its peace and political neutrality towards all issues of war, but it is less well-known that Sweden is one of the world’s largest arms manufacturer and has an extensive history of exporting weapons to human rights abusing countries.4 What then Sweden does not do with sending boots on the ground it makes up for by sustaining the countries that do so. Another controversial case is that of Julian Assange, who with WikiLeaks exposed many of the deplorable acts committed by US foreign policy.5 Assange then sought political refuge after rape charges by the Swedish government were brought against him, charges which are widely believed to be dubious and politically motivated, the result of US pressure. These issues reveal that the popular image of Nordic countries being peaceful and free of ethical blame with foreign policy issues is a facade, and that on the world stage even they bow to the immense political pressure created by countries like the US.

The final critique to be discussed is that of how Scandinavian culture has been impacted by the rise of Islamic immigration, and the culture’s xenophobic and racist cultural reaction to it by much of the white majority. One common complaint by this majority is that the Nordic welfare system cannot support such an influx of immigrants, even though this claim has weak supporting economic evidence. An OECD report for Denmark discredited the notion by looking at the years from 2007 to 2009 and found that “the extra money spent and taxes paid by immigrants outpace the public services they use and result in a net gain of over a billion kroner per year for the nation’s economy.”6 Despite this, Denmark has recently witnessed the rise of the Danish People’s Party, a far-right party that is explicitly and openly dedicated to working against multiculturalism in Danish society, and to restricting the rights of immigrants.3 This major cultural conservatism in Scandinavian society, a society that is often called “progressive,” is important from the analytical frameworks of Marxism and critical theory because it exposes the cultural and ethical limitations that capitalism as a socio-economic system places on us despite our attempts to continuously humanize it. What follows next is the classic theory by Karl Marx which summarizes this, followed by this article’s conclusion, which is a socialist prescription to completely end capitalism.

In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and other works, Marx argued for a particularly bold social theory called the base and superstructure. For Marx, the base is the given socio-economic system of a time period, “socio-economic” in the sense of how people work, who owns and manages their workplace, and who picks the fruits of the laborer’s work in the form of profit. The superstructure is essentially the category which contains every other aspect of human society, including morality/ethics, religion, family, the state, politics, law, media and so forth. Marxist theorists have argued that the base is what creates and influences the superstructure, and moreover that the superstructure is something which rationalizes and defends the base. Since the two groups are connected, a particular superstructure changes only when the base does too. In his Critique of Political Economy, Marx gives us a rough outline of how this theory works:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

[…] No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Karl Marx argued for a social theory where economics creates and drives many aspects of our lives. (image author unknown)

Karl Marx argued for a social theory where economics creates and drives many aspects of our lives. (image author unknown)

Many philosophers and sociologists, such as Antonio Gramsci and the critical theorists, have been influenced by this theory and have further modified and perfected it. In Che Guevara’s case he even successfully applied it as policy in Cuba.7 If we assume the theory to be true, then Nordic culture cannot completely rid itself of socially conservative beliefs until it has a full socio-economic transformation that involves the abolition of private ownership of the means of production, the central characteristic of capitalism. Doing this and replacing it with a new economic base would allow all capitalist societies, whether Scandinavian or not, to directly attack the conservatism that lingers within their superstructures by initiating a cultural revolution that directly mirrors an economic and political one. The prescriptive model for this new economic system can be simply summarized as worker control of the means of production, the model that many from Marx to Hellen Keller understood and advocated for. Under this economic system, the means of production in society are owned and run by the workers, and all the profits created by the workers would directly belong to that working class.

A worker controlled economy would not only allow for a highly progressive culture, but would make it possible to build a society that lacks of all the issues previously described with the Nordic model. In the realm of politics, it would dethrone the capitalist class and their lobbying of the political system, as workers would now have eliminated the financial power of this class by seizing their enterprises from them and taking control of the profits. Democratically elected politicians would then be purely at the whims of the working class and not Super PACs who steer our merely nominal representatives through millions of dollars in contributions. On the world economic stage, this system would be especially impactful in the Third World by eliminating sweatshops, hazardous mines, and other more traditional and authoritarian workplaces that are common in undeveloped countries. Since workers would now be in control of these dangerous workplaces, they would no longer be at the mercy of a boss who values profit over safe conditions. Direct contributions to imperialism would also cease, as the now democratically controlled firms could collectively stop producing or selling weapons to hostile states that kill innocent people around the world.

Those who consider this system to be too utopian or unrealistic will not find their position easy to defend. The Paris Commune of 1871 became important in socialist history as an early example of socialist revolution. Paris was seized by its working class and the Communards, and they ushered in a radically new form of government that featured worker controlled businesses, pensions, remission of rent, higher status for women, and many other improvements. Revolutionary Catalonia in the 1930s was another example that featured a society absent of hierarchy and fully present with democracy in every aspect of life.8 Catalonia was especially interesting for showing the beginnings of a new culture based on the abolition of marriage and its replacement with free love. In the present day, Cuba is a serious socialist challenge to the status quo by being the nation with the second highest standard of living in Latin America surpassing every capitalist country in the region except Chile.9 Despite dealing with an oppressive embargo that has limited its growth for over half a century, Cuba features universal and free healthcare, education, and transportation which not even its opposing developed neighbor the US has.

There are endless other examples of non-capitalist societies creating radically different results in politics, economics, and culture, and the Paris Commune, Catalonia, and Cuba are all different in many regards and belong to different time periods, but they are all similar in their most important shared characteristic: they are run by their working class and do not feature a capitalist class that privately owns the means of production. Whether American, Scandinavian, Chinese, or Bangladeshi, if the working classes of the entire capitalist world organized and placed themselves at the center of a new socio-economic system they would have the capability to fully ethically value a multitude of social standards that include both welfare and democracy, build a politically stable government without a bourgeois class influencing it, run sustainable economics that do not hold the Third World in chains, prevent contributions to imperialism, and cleanse themselves of their remaining conservative beliefs.

– Dino Mehic (Moontouch)