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

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

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.


The widening gap between rich and poor

I am just watching the CBC news report on the widening gap between the rich and the poor in Canada, but I am somehow not too hopeful that Canadians have the wherewithall to stand up and demand economic justice, as the Scandinavians did. 

I would almost expect, with the new tough, poor-exclusive federal budget on the way, that the majority of Canadians, most of whom elected the current government, are more worried about gaining wealth during the current regime, than to be concerned about the lot of the poor in Canada.

Otherwise, I would expect a huge outcry from the general populace, demanding: "Where did this mandate of restraint come from, when, just a year ago, we were  being told that our economy was robust enough to to weather the economic storm befalling much of the rest of the world?" Less than a year after this new government was elected, we are being told that there isn't enough to go around, at least as far as the poorer in our society are concerned.  Funny, I haven't heard anything about tax increases for the top 20% of income earners in Canada.  Maybe too much money was pumped into ridings that voted for the current government for there to be enough in the 'bank' for the election winners to not have to once again make the poor have to suffer for their election extravagences.

It's not a new story; it has happened continually in our fair land.  But I just can't believe how we lined up at the polls to make sure that it would happen once again. If times get hard enough perhaps we will be ready to sell off what's left of our land for the sake of a 'return to prosperity'.

Or perhaps we should, as good Canadians, apologise for 'being upset' and turn our attention back to whatever distracts us from worrying what is really happening to our country.


It's funny how 'news' that

It's funny how 'news' that the gap is widening is popping up lately in corporate media. In reality that chasm has been gaping wider and wider since the early 1980s, I think. It's only coming up lately as a 'hot topic' for journalists--a flavour of the month--because it's getting too big to ignore safely. Thanks, big media!

We were content with the gap as long as we could get easy credit and spend as if we were wealthier than we actually were (thanks Big Banks and Communist China!). Now that things are getting tight, we're forced to acknowledge the reality of poverty and the existence of legitimate questions around social justice. Let's hope A) that it's not too late and B) that we won't forget justice again if things ever improve.

As I said in my previous comment here, there are two culprits: corporate media (that fiddles with bread and circuses while Rome burns) and human nature (if I can convince myself that I'm doing okay, I'm happy to elect radical, slash-and-burn conservative governments so long as they promise me tax cuts).

It's within our power to deal with both of these issues, but only if we choose to.

socialism in Scandinavia has never been translated outside...?

Most of us who want socialism or social democracy for Canada have looked at Sweden, Norway, Finnland or the Netherlands at some time and wondered why we could not practice their kind of government and social order. The British, who are much closer to these states, have never copied it to the UK, nor have the Irish or French.

I am a keen student of history. I always ask about the consciousness of the people of any society whose history seems extreme. The success of socialisms in those nations i mention is pretty peculiar, it has not been capable of export. Exporting our Canadian way of life to Afghanistan or the American way to Iraq, has been dismally stupid in conception yet has been ofered to us as a reason to go and kill people in foreign lands. (many Canadians seem to have bought this Harper-ite/ Ignatief-fool nonsense too.)

And yet... America did somehow rebuild Japan as a liberal democracy after WWII, with many caveats on how Japanese capitalism and Japanese hierarchy are major obstacles to what I would agree is democracy. The consciousness of the J people is not the same as ours. They live a version of democracy I would not want to import here.

And yet... Germany was rebuilt as a progressive republic after WWII. The consciousness of Germans has been through more wrenches, twists and reversals of any modern European nation, and perhaps only the Chinese have a comparable recent history of radical drastic changes. Now I admire much about the German socio-political order, its distrust of war, its Green politics, its relative liberality compared to places east. But then again, Germans have shown a degree of contempt for the Greeks that is not pleasant.

Conclusions: It is not only good policy,  wise political choices, intelligent design of economy, compassionate insight into how equality should work, that makes a social order possible. The Scandinavians have a unique history, as do we all. Some histories shape a popular consciousness that supports a vigorous social democracy. I would posit that Canada's does not.

Our colonial origins militated from the get go, against an egalitarian society, and against strong traditions of resistance to capitalist excess. Racism, against Indians, Irish, French speakers, East Europeans etc is a sad fact of our history.  So is class prejudice. So is religoius prejudice.   All that is at a level of masses of people. Our education system has tried in the past to dilute our prejudices. Now, the advance of private schooling and the decline of public education, puts that agenda at risk.

Then there is our ruling class and elite bourgeois. Officially they are quite "liberal" in many attitudes, towards femnism, gay rights, etc. All well and good as far as it goes. It does not go far when transforming the capitalist foundations of our society. Constant cutting of taxes on corporations has not bothered Canadians in any notable way.

Our union movement has been in retreat since the 1970s' as it has been in the USA. We never had such an ideologically-devoted Prime Minister as we do now in Harper. The National Post newspaper and several tabloid sized papers in the West are more right wing since the 1990s than any papers of such circulation in the past. Our "conservatism" has been transformed into US-style reactionary politics.

Our ruling class is not much like the Swedes' was or is, and a good book to read about that is by a Swede: Goran Therborn, "What does the Ruling Class do when it rules?"

For me, an incisive analysis of socialism in a small homogenous nation with a stable past of progress and modernity such as Sweden enjoys, and a culture of vigorous individualism and self-help, is wonderful to read --- but the lessons that it can teach a nation as unlike that as we are in Canada, are limited lessons indeed. LIving next to the world's most gargantuan experiment in plutocracy, imperialism, militarism and consumptive materialism, we are not well-placed to become another model of Northern social democracy. Sigh. I wish it were otherwise.

charles Jeanes, Nelson

Thanks for this analysis,

Thanks for this analysis, Charles--it should probably be a column and not a comment, in fact. I agree that we can't translate systems of governance willy nilly from one country to another, but the main obstacle to greater social justice in Canada isn't, I believe, cultural, but rather the result of media-driven ignorance and distraction. Canadians favour humane policies like universal health care and OAS culturally, but sit idly by while recent governments undermine and subvert them. Why? Because people are busy digesting trivial media.

I think that if the real options were laid out before the Canadian people they would make choices not unlike those of these Scandanavian countries. But will that happen? Umm....


I don't understand why it would not work here, why must everything be owned by the 1% and have the labour done in other countries thus putting Canadians out of work? Why must we support those on welfare as well as the  corporate bums as well? Why are they allowed to go tax free at our expense? 


This shows the 99% can have a say if they had the guts to stay together. However the middle class still have it too good. Yet they don't seem to realize that they are slowly but shurley being squeezed out and the unions are in danger of being put out of business by the 1% and Governments. I guess we will never learn from lessons of others till it is too late. The companies are having products produced by 3rd world countries and we are buying now but what good does it do for our country. Yes they get rich but as more and more here are put out of work eventually there will be no one here left to buy. Government polatitions get enormous pentions after 7 years and wage increases but skwak if the workers want a raise-- wake up Canada.


World Bank Creating Poverty

BBC Newsnight


Add this to the mix and it

Add this to the mix and it all makes "Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that strict right-wing ideology might appeal to those who have trouble grasping the complexity of the world." Proof at last!

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