Kids playing vikings at sea on a boat.

Kids playing vikings at sea on a boat.

(Photo: iStock/via Getty Images)

A Nonviolent Revolution, Viking-Style

Could the United States actually be home to an organized movement to deliver its people a happier, healthier, and more egalitarian future?

In the first half of the 20th century the descendants of the Vikings did what we Americans have been hesitant to do. They waged a nonviolent revolution to take away the dominance of the economic elite.

In the U.S., even though the economic elite is okay with bringing climate emergencies to an increasing number of Americans, it maintains its control of both major parties. For the Nordics, overcoming elite control was a very big reach, but the Danes broke through in the 1920s and then the Swedes and Norwegians matched them in the 1930s. (Finns and Icelanders followed in the ‘50s.)

I personally experienced the payoff of a nonviolent revolution when as a young man I studied at a typically free Nordic university, in Oslo. Of my eleven books, the most pleasurable to write was Viking Economics, published in 2016 and still in use. When the book came out, an international association of Nordic economists invited me to keynote their conference, and I learned still more.

Few Americans seem to know that the 2023 World Happiness Report rates the people of Finland, Denmark, and Iceland as the top three countries in the world, with Sweden as sixth. The U.S. is fifteenth. The World Economic Forum’s measure of the gender gap among the nations puts Nordic countries in the top five, while the U.S. is 43rd. Racial Equity Rankings by US News and World Report puts the Nordics in the top ten. The United States? The U.S. comes in 73rd.

Yale University has created an Environmental Performance Index for rating national accomplishments. Four of the Nordics are in the top 10 while Norway follows at 20th. The U.S. is 43rd.

When an oligarchy is in charge, misery is widespread no matter how small and homogeneous you are!

In the 2022 Democracy Index rating, on a 10-point scale Nordics exceed 9.0. The U.S. is 7.85. In the 2019 rating of “best countries to raise a child,” the Nordics took the first four places, while the U.S. came in at 22nd.

Still, that was considerably better for the U.S. than the 2023 Global Peace Index: Nordic countries got the top two places while Sweden scored 28th. The U.S. scored 131st -- down ten places since the Democracy Index of three years ago!

I could continue with rankings but you get the idea. For Americans, the full potential of our energy, smarts, creativity, and yearning for justice remain hobbled by the power of the economic elite and its political culture maintained through mainstream mass media and the two major political parties.

The Vikings used to be in bad shape

If such ratings existed before the 1920s, the Nordics also would have been caught under-performing. In fact, they were in such trouble that their people were emigrating to the U.S. in large numbers.

Some people believe the Nordics do well these days because they are small and relatively homogeneous. But in the Nordic “bad old days” they were smaller, and much more homogeneous. They performed poorly because their economic elites were running things. When an oligarchy is in charge, misery is widespread no matter how small and homogeneous you are!

What changed among the Nordics to generate today’s high ratings? Their people who didn’t leave figured out how to use nonviolent direct action campaigns to force their oligarchies to give up control.

But why not make a violent revolution?

To many Finns in 1918, armed struggle seemed the obvious choice. Their violent insurgency turned into civil war. The capitalists and conservatives crushed the socialist uprising: the result in that small population was at least 35,000 dead.

The Finnish people’s defeat delayed their movement’s eventual victory over the economic elite, which they finally achieved through nonviolent struggle. (Another of the many cases in history where violence failed to reach an objective, then nonviolent struggle succeeded.)

The Finnish direct action climaxed in the 1950s: a nationwide 10-day metalworkers’ strike was followed by a general strike of half a million workers, and at last the Finns could put themselves in the same league with their Scandinavian comrades.

While many Danes in the early 1920s were also tempted by violence, sufficient activists noted the failure of the Finnish violence and also became disillusioned with how their “next door leftists” in Germany were handling their struggle for revolution.

Danish radicals chose first to build on the credibility of the co-op movement and on their common-sense vision of what Denmark could look like if Danes took away the dominance of the economic elite. They then plunged into nonviolent campaigning. By 1924 the Danes obtained their first social democratic prime minister.

Impressed, Swedish workers and others followed this Danish recipe: create a clear vision of a new society, escalate community organizing (via co-ops + unions, in their case), and launch campaign after campaign of nonviolent struggle, through which the movement grows more massive.

By 1931 the Swedish economic elite was desperate to hold onto power. They used their government’s military and killed workers in a local but important strike. The labor movement responded to the killings by calling a national general strike, supported by middle-class progressives, and took power.

Norwegian workers and farmers, eager to learn from both Danes and Swedes, then upped their level of struggle. The Norwegians had a more radical vision than did the Swedes—Lenin even invited Norwegian Labor Party leaders to join Russian revolutionary meetings in Moscow. The labor movement increased the level of strike activity, aiming to end the elite’s ownership of the means of production.

By then, however, Norway was caught by the 1930s’ Great Depression. Norwegians in poverty were starving while still trying to maintain their strikes. Given the pain and hardship, the Labor Party decided not to continue the struggle to make a full-scale victory and instead to settle for social democracy, which was less expansive than their version of a new society.

The coalition of workers and farmers agreed to let the capitalists continue to own and manage their means of production, but required them to accept complete unionization, a high degree of regulation, huge taxes on large incomes and capital, and accept a large sector of co-ops as well as many municipally-owned and nationally-owned enterprises.

Most importantly, the Norwegian economic elite would have to give up their power to run the economy as a whole: big-picture decisions would be made by the working class and family farmers, through their dominance in parliament.

A growing number of mass strikes forced the Norwegian economic elite to surrender. The Labor Party—the most socialist of the Nordic workers parties—then basically ran the country for half a century.

Icelanders show Americans what we could do here

An observer might guess—since today’s Vikings have it so good—that their capacity for nonviolent struggle would have vanished through disuse. Wrong.

After decades of basic Icelander contentment with their social democracy, in 2008 Icelanders found most of the bankers—in league with the government—had become so corrupt that the country’s economy collapsed. Even the ATM’s no longer worked!

Icelanders quickly built a nonviolent direct action campaign powerful enough to oust the bankers and major party politicians alike. The media called it “the pots and pans revolution” because people massing outside parliament banged their kitchen pots so loud that the parliamentarians couldn’t debate!

The movement refused to allow Iceland to cooperate with the capitalist International Monetary Fund, whose job is to aid countries in bankruptcy. Instead, the movement itself rebuilt political and economic structures on a sound basis. (The women’s banks were uncorrupted and didn’t need to start over.)

When I later interviewed the rebellion’s leader at the key site of the struggle, I learned that 3% of Iceland’s population actively engaged in the direct action. I began to fantasize what ten million Americans (3 percent of the U.S. population) might do given a crisis—a climate disaster, for example—PLUS strategic nonviolent leadership.

The Icelanders’ story raises this question: Will Americans and other activists prepare our vision and strategy now, for large-scale nonviolent struggle when a climate emergency or other crisis arrives that makes it possible?

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