1 – What Makes Scandinavia Different?
BSSB.BE https://www.jacobinmag.com 10.08.2015
What accounts for the Nordic countries’ strong welfare states? Hint: it’s not white homogeneity.
here’s a reason the Scandinavian welfare states are still the envy of many across the world. Even decades into a neoliberal project to reform them, Scandinavia sports relatively high income equality, large, tax-financed welfare programs, powerful unions, and relatively low unemployment rates.
Neoliberal textbooks tell us that the only way to societal prosperity is through low tax rates, deregulated business, and cut-throat competitive labor markets. Yet despite failing to meet the metrics of the Anglo-American variety of capitalism, Scandinavian countries stubbornly continue to prosper, and regularly come out on top of the global indexes of happiness and quality of life.
It is no surprise, therefore, to find neoliberals and conservatives devoting considerable intellectual energy to delegitimizing the “Nordic Model” of public welfare.
Earlier this year, the Institute of Economic Affairs, a British neoliberal think tank, devoted an entire book to Scandinavian “unexceptionalism.” The aim was to explain away the success story of the Nordic welfare states, arguing in classical Hayekian fashion that the success of the Nordic countries predates the era of public welfare, and that anything exceptional and successful about it has vanished since then.
Meanwhile in the US, where the Bernie Sanders campaign has thrown ideas of Nordic social democracy into the political mainstream, National Review’s Kevin Williamson has adopted the opposite strategy. In a couple of recent pieces he acknowledges the continuing exceptionalism of the Nordic experience and admits that the Nordic countries have indeed been relatively successful until very recently.
But in a strange plot twist Williamson also racializes the Nordic experience, tying the success of social-democratic policies to the alleged whiteness and homogeneity of the Nordic countries, thus undermining its credibility as a source of inspiration for American progressives committed to antiracism.
The “Nordic Consensus”
In a National Review piece published in early July, Williamson calls Sanders a “national socialist” and denounces his use of “Us and Them” rhetoric as un-Scandinavian.
Williamson construes Sanders’s willingness to highlight conflicts of interest in popular power as being supposedly the “polar opposite” of how politics is done in Scandinavia — where politics is “consensus-driven” — and that where this “conformity” constitutes a “stabilizing and moderating force in politics, allowing for the emergence of a subtle and sophisticated and remarkably broad social agreement that contains political disputes.”
Scandinavian politics is much less partisan and more coalition-prone than in the US, with proportional representation effectively denying any one party an absolute parliamentary majority. But we should not mistake a contingent twentieth-century historical conjuncture of relative political civility for a supra-historical essence of Nordic political culture.
Today the universal welfare state and regulated, egalitarian labor markets, are so popular among voters that even liberal or conservative politicians wanting to dismantle them have to run as defenders of public welfare if they wish to avoid electoral suicide. But this situation did not emerge from the mists of history. It is the product of decades of struggles from organized labor and other popular movements throughout the twentieth century.
The social-democratic welfare state has faced strong historical challenges — both from the Left, by strong communist and new left movements, and from the Right, by organized business, such as the powerful Swedish employer organization SAF, and by Tea Party-like anti-taxation movements, which appeared in the 1970s in Norway and Denmark.
Simply put, the “Nordic Consensus” has never been as comprehensive as Williamson would have us believe.
Shortly after the “national socialist” essay, Williamson published another piece entitled “The Whitest Privilege.” In it, he performs an astonishing piece of pseudo-psychoanalysis of those on the American left who point to the Scandinavian welfare states as a source of political inspiration.
Progressives might say they want to adopt Scandinavian-style institutional models of public universal welfare, but what they really mean, Williamson informs us — with a hefty dose of hermeneutics of suspicion — is that they don’t like ethnic diversity: “’We’d like to make America more like Norway or Finland’ is, among other things, a way of saying, ‘We’d like to make America more like a virtually all-white society.’”
This accusation seems all the more odd considering it was Williamson himself who only two days prior reminded us that it is conservatives — not progressives — who have long theorized ethno-cultural homogeneity as the key to political-economic success: “That the relative success of the Western European welfare states, and particularly of the Scandinavian states, is rooted in cultural and ethnic homogeneity is a longstanding conservative criticism of Bernie-style schemes to recreate the Danish model in New Jersey and Texas and Mississippi.”
In any case, the premise of Williamson’s masked attempt to racialize the Scandinavian success story is flawed. Williamson writes that the “nations of Northern Europe” were until recently “ethnically homogeneous, overwhelmingly white, hostile to immigration, nationalistic, and frankly racist in much of their domestic policy.”
The first two of these observations — homogeneous and white — are obviously true, but mundanely so. However, the ensuing claims bring Williamson onto thin ice. Perhaps half-realizing that it would be plainly false to directly describe his actual target, the Nordic countries, as particularly racist, xenophobic, or nationalist compared to other countries, in Europe or around the world, Williamson opts for the wider and vaguer descriptor “Northern Europe.”
Scandinavia is not exceptional by European standards when it comes to racism and nationalism, and one can readily find examples of both hostility to immigration, chauvinistic nationalism, and racist policies in the histories of the Nordic countries.
For example, like most European countries, antisemitism was bad in the Nordic countries before World War II, and nationalist fervor swept through all of the Nordic countries in the nineteenth century, as it did around the world.
Likewise, to the limited extent that the Nordic countries have colonial histories, there is also a history of institutionalized racism (á la Belgium, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the UK, the Netherlands, France, the US, etc.) that has survived into contemporary times. The abysmal treatment by Danish authorities of the indigenous population of Greenland is a case in point from the post–World War II period.
But Williamson fails to prove first, that the Nordic countries — whether we are talking about state policy or popular sentiment — really do have a consistently worse track record than other countries (including the US), and second, that racism played any part in the establishment of the Nordic-style universal welfare states in the twentieth century.
Williamson’s attempt at substantiation of the claim of intrinsic Nordic xenophobia is limited to a selective set of facts about Swedish immigration history, presumably the ugliest truths he could find. On closer inspection, they all seem to be derived from a single article by anthropologist Charles Westin, and none seem to really support Williamson’s insinuation of institutional Swedish racism.
We are given three pieces of information.
First, that most of the worker immigrants coming to Sweden for many years were from other Scandinavian countries, because the trade-union confederation was worried about “cheap foreign labor.” In highlighting this fact, Williamson simply displays his ideological proclivities by identifying any opposition to controls on national labor market entry, whatever its motivations, as by definition “Buchananite.”
Yet the stance of the Swedish trade-union confederation, the LO, was evidently not motivated by xenophobia. Rather, the purpose was to defend the living conditions of any worker in Sweden, regardless of race, ethnicity, or citizenship. As Westin writes (but Williamson conveniently forgets to add): “[The LO] agreed that importing cheap labor would not be allowed and that foreign workers were to enjoy the same wage levels and rights as Swedes, including access to unemployment benefits.”
Second, we are told that many Jews were rejected when seeking refuge in Sweden in the 1930s and 1940s due to prevalent antisemitism. What Williamson does not tell us is that this picture changed fairly drastically during the war itself, as large numbers of Jews from both Norway and Denmark (alongside members of the movements resisting the German occupation) escaped to Sweden. Here, again, Westin is informative: “At first there was some reluctance to accept these foreigners but fairly soon they were generally accepted and even welcomed.”
Third, we are told that “the modern Swedish word for ‘immigrant’ does not mean ‘foreign-born person,’ but ‘non-Nordic person in Sweden.’” This fact does have some bite, but here too Williamson forgets to give us the whole story — this time about the active attempts of the Swedish state to combat this unfortunate habit of thought.
Authors: Rune Møller Stahl & Andreas Møller Mulvad
*This is the first part of the article about mysterious Scandinavia. More information You will find in the next part of the article
Tagscompetitive labor markets global indexes of happiness large low unemployment rates political culture political disputes powerful unions quality of life Scandinavian-style institutional models social-democratic privilege strong welfare states tax-financed welfare programs the Nordic countries the “Nordic Consensus” the “Nordic Model” of public welfare variety of capitalism white homogeneity
2 – What Makes Scandinavia Different? 13.08.2015 | BSSB
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