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The Real Denmark

The Nordic countries aren't socialist. But they're still a living, breathing falsification of the US right's anti-socialist talking points.

Social housing in Copenhagen. seier+seier / Flickr

A couple months back, Fox Business host Trish Regan narrated a three-minute segment that began as a conventional piece of anti-socialist propaganda. Droning in a sinister voice against a backdrop of hooded protesters, Regan used the case of Venezuela to argue that socialism brings disaster: “No food, no health care, no jobs, lots of violence, lots of looting, lots of corruption.”

Then things took a surprising turn. In a bold rhetorical move, Regan turned her ire towards Denmark, a liberal democratic, socially stable country in the North of Europe that boasts high ratings on everything from happiness to economic competitiveness. Like Venezuela, Regan argued, Denmark has “stripped people of their opportunities.” Taxes are so high and welfare services so generous that “no one wants to work,” “nobody graduates from school,” and “nobody is incentivized to do anything, because they are not going to be rewarded.”

The reaction in Denmark — a country of less than 6 million unaccustomed to receiving such attention — was immediate and fierce. The segment made headlines in all the major newspapers, and thousands of ordinary people chimed in, often angrily, on social media.

The Danish embassy in the US published a fact sheet, pointing out that 75 percent of the Danish working-age population works (compared to 70.6 percent in the US), that Denmark is second when it comes to “attracting, developing, and retaining talent” (the US is sixteenth), and that, according to the World Economic Forum, “you’re more likely to achieve the American Dream if you live in Denmark.”

Politicians from across the political spectrum joined in the pile-on. Dan Jørgensen of the center-left Social Democratic Party gleefully shot back at Regan in a video that quickly netted more views than Denmark’s entire population. Finance Minister Kristian Jensen of the center-right Venstre Party insisted that Fox Business stop “pissing on Denmark.” Even Anders Samuelsen of the libertarian Liberal Alliance conceded that the comparison was “far out” (while expressing confidence that the segment would draw positive attention to Denmark’s combination of a strong welfare state and a liberal market economy).

To some extent, the Danish reaction reflected a sense of unease at being denigrated on a major network in a country most Danes consider a friend. But at the same time, the fact that not even Danish libertarians were willing to back up the Fox Business view tells us how desperate the US Right is becoming in their attempt to stem the rise of democratic socialism — and, not least, to undermine a potential Bernie Sanders presidential run in 2020.

What Denmark Is and Isn’t

Denmark is not a socialist country. While it has a strong welfare state and strong unions that make life better for the average citizen (and in the 1970s there was an abortive push to partially socialize industry through wage-earner funds), ownership of the economy remains predominately in private hands. Denmark even suffers from its share of corporate governance scandals. Currently, the country’s leading bank, Danske Bank, is embroiled in what might be the largest case of financial whitewashing in world history.

What Denmark does show is that there are no economic barriers to high taxation, high social spending, and high unionization. Social democracy, contrary to Regan and other right-wing ideologues, does not yield mass unemployment or economic ruin. It’s yielded some of the highest standards of living and freest countries the world has ever seen. Poverty and inequality are relatively low, gender equality (not least because of the welfare state) is comparatively high, and workers have more rights and say on the job than in the US.

Denmark is not unique. Each of the Scandinavian countries have attained similar levels of social equality despite having quite different economies. While Sweden has always been dominated by mining and heavy industry (with industrial giants like Volvo and Bofors figuring prominently), Denmark has relied on agriculture and smaller industrial firms, Norway has been fishing- and timber-heavy, and so on.

Despite these different economic profiles, over the course of the twentieth century all of the Nordics managed to drastically reduce wage inequality and decommodify substantial parts of the economy. The key was unions, popular movements, and left parties. It was these mass forces — not benevolent elites, carefully weighing the alternatives before deciding on an enlightened mix of capitalism and socialism — who were the architects and impetus behind the Nordic model. They are the ones responsible for making the Nordic countries among the happiest and most democratic in the world.

Of course, the Scandinavian experience should not be fetishized. Neither Denmark nor the other Scandinavian countries have been immune to the wave of neoliberal reforms in recent decades, with state cutbacks, pension reductions, and financial liberalization (and a corresponding rise of the far right). In some areas, the Nordics have even been forerunners. Sweden led the world in school privatization and now has a for-profit education industry that attracts plaudits from right-wingers across the globe. Recent pension reforms in Denmark will raise the retirement age to the highest in Europe, and in 2014, the country sold parts of its national energy company to Goldman Sachs. According to the OECD, Scandinavia has experienced some of the sharpest increases in inequality in recent decades.

Nor should we forget the specific historical moment — and, crucially, these countries’ position in the global order — that made the Scandinavian model possible.

Pressured by strong labor movements and a deep popular desire for material gains after the horrors of war and fascism, European and American elites accepted a wide-ranging class compromise in the years after World War II. Full employment and welfare states were built up, and wages were allowed to rise rapidly.

In Scandinavia this development was taken furthest, as social-democratic parties obtained a near-hegemonic status. Meanwhile, the strong anticommunism of social democratic leaders further mollified American elites and pushed these leaders into the arms of the US state. In the Danish case, the Social Democrats led the country into the NATO alliance, and the party ran a private intelligence operation, collecting data on communist activists in cooperation with the CIA.

Things were quite different elsewhere. Countries in Latin America that attempted a leftward turn experienced the brutal stick of US intervention — whether through economic sanctions, coups, or assassinations — often for policy programs much less ambitious than those in postwar Scandinavia. Sweden’s Olof Palme was accepted as a legitimate leader in postwar Sweden; Guatemala’s Jacobo Árbenz was deposed in a 1954 US-engineered coup for trying to implement a moderate reform agenda.

The historical irony is that Danish social democracy — which the US permitted as part of a larger geopolitical strategy — today serves to undermine the claims of the US right that leftist reforms will collapse under the weight of their own economic inefficiency.

But that isn’t stopping right-wingers from trying.

Looking to the US

The Scandinavian experience shows that policies even more ambitious than those currently advanced by left politicians like Bernie Sanders are entirely feasible. Denmark is a living, breathing falsification of conservative (and American liberal) talking points.

The unsophisticated nature of attacks like the one by Trish Regan suggests the growing frustration among right-wingers that democratic socialist ideas continue to pick up momentum. To us, as outside observers of American politics, US democratic socialists look to be gaining ground in the battle to define a new “common sense.”

We are — as always — looking anxiously to the US, because the balance of power there will determine the space of political possibility in our part of the world (and of course elsewhere). To the extent that democratic socialists in the US manage to make Denmark-style political demands mainstream — universal health care, free college tuition, and a living wage, to mention a few — it will be easier for us to shore up, and go beyond, the Scandinavian welfare state. For if the US begins to “go Scandinavian,” it will become much harder for libertarian voices in Denmark to make a convincing case that our welfare state must also be dismantled.

In this sense, the outcome of your struggles is crucial to us as well. And we are rooting for you.