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Striking sawmill workers in Adalen, Sweden, march to the mills to protest the fact that scabs were brought in to break their strike. Soldiers sent to protect the strikebreakers opened fire on the workers, killing five people. The next day, a general strike was called in Adalen and 80,000 people demonstrated in Stockholm to protest the shootings. (Image: Today in Labor History)

What the Nordics Bravely Won, People Across the US Are Now Demanding

With a growing hunger for "an alternative and achievable vision," Americans are increasingly looking to what the social democracies of northern Europe have shown is possible

George Lakey

For an activist with a sociological background, the chance to criss-cross the U.S. during the Sanders/Trump era is golden.  The opportunity came from book touring  for “Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right and How We Can, Too.”

I did over a hundred events, traveling to over 60 cities and towns from Arizona to Alaska, New Hampshire to North Dakota, Georgia to Iowa, California to Minnesota.  I’ve spoken with grassroots leaders and activist-wannabees, conservatives and liberals and anarchists.  I’ve responded to interviewers on over 40 radio and television shows, and chatted with people while waiting for a sandwich at a roadside diner.

"The Nordics’ vision inspired them to fight for and achieve it.  In the United States, we’ve put off making a rough agreement on a broad vision."

What I found was a combination of openness and skepticism that belies simple stereotypes of American polarization.  I found Trump voters with grave doubts about his rightness for the job – even some who voted for him as a way of, as Michael Moore put it, throwing a Molotov cocktail into the whole electoral mess. 

Some true-believing Trump supporters were more motivated by the hurt they experience from perceived condescension by “bi-coastal politically correct snobs” than by any belief in Trump himself. From their point of view, Trump’s sticking it to self-righteous progressives justified their continued support, even if he is colluding with Putin and Wall Street. 

The culture war is alive and well, waged long before Trump became a candidate, fueled not only by racism and sexism but also, on the other side, by classism exhibited by the anti-oppressionists.  Writing off working class people as latent fascists, as I heard some passionate anti-racists do, not only ignores the considerable support Sanders got from the working class in his primary run but also commits exactly the sin of prejudice that is supposedly what we don’t like about sexism, racism and homophobia.  Since I’m a gay man brought up working class, you can imagine how I feel about prejudice.

The Nordics provide a mirror for American hopes and fears

While doing the tour’s first year I led two dozen training events with activists, ranging from two-hour coaching sessions with leaders to all-day workshops on campaign design and direct action skills.  I added these to my main purpose, which was to help people get a fresh perspective on our own situation by learning how the descendants of the Vikings pulled off their historic turn-around. 

After all, in the 1920s and ‘30s the Swedes and Norwegians had an even wider polarization than we’re experiencing now in the U.S. On the streets of Oslo people marched in brown shirts and swastikas, while others were organizing to bring the dictatorship of the proletariat. Nevertheless, those decades provided the time when the movement broke through the resistance of the economic elites and created authentic democracies. 

"The most stimulating way I know to stir collective thought about vision and strategy is to draw from the concrete experience of other people who have been as hungry for change as we are."

Once they had democracy they could invent on a national level, for the first time in history, an economic model that delivers a high degree of equality, individual freedom, and shared abundance.  They even rolled up their sleeves and virtually abolished poverty, as I describe in the book.

Police don’t carry guns, incarceration is unusual and used for intensive rehabilitation, and the people enjoy free higher education, universal quality health care and pensions, affordable child care and on and on.  For many Americans I meet, it is too good to be true. 

I welcome the push-back.  In bookstores the challenges come from radical anarchists and conservatives, and every place in between.  In the beginning of the tour I gave up the author’s traditional reading or lecture and instead used the time for questions, asking them for the hardest questions first. 

The book events are so lively that bookstore managers sometimes worry I won’t stop in time for them to sell copies of the book.  That’s because the questions are heartfelt, and urgent, and come from so many different perspectives.  I find it tough to keep the discussion coherent, but I mostly succeed.  In Boulder, Colorado a journalist tweeted, “This guy is just fucking relentlessly on point.

These are typical challenges: “The Nordics could do it because they were homogeneous, and we’re too diverse!” “Their countries are small and ours is huge!” “Our 1 percent is fiercely resistant and they were pussy cats.”  “They weren’t stuck with the burden of racism and we are!”

Even though in the book I’ve already responded to these questions and more, I am happy to respond in the moment.  As often as possible I tell them stories from U.S. history because much of the skepticism comes from a fear that we Americans are somehow inferior, not up to the task.  I have those moments of fear, too.

I tell them about the United Auto Workers organizers who united white and black workers in Detroit and Flint to shut down and occupy auto plants in the 1930s, confronting racism that was then more pervasive than it is today. 

I tell them stories from the civil rights struggle and how the movement stood up to the terrorist Ku Klux Klan even at times when local, state, and federal law enforcement were all against us. 

I tell them about the class war that Warren Buffett acknowledged in the New York Times and what progressive movements were doing when we were winning in the 1960s and70s, and then about our huge strategic error that led to our losses afterward.

The art of strategy makes a difference

In Juneau, Alaska, I was brought to the city’s largest TV studio to talk about the book.  It was packed with grassroots citizens.  For an hour the audience asked me hard questions that were mostly about vision and strategy.  The session was televised live throughout Alaska.

Although “Viking Economics” was first greeted by articles in Bloomberg and TIME magazine that emphasized the Nordic achievements, the continuing book discussion at the grassroots is more about how to make a new America.  That discussion doesn’t reveal a lack of will or numbers.  It shows instead a gap in vision and strategy.  The Nordics were clear about both.

That’s why people are finding the Nordics’ stories useful.  We get to reflect on our own movements’ strengths and weaknesses. As a bookstore attender emailed afterward, the book offers “an alternative and achievable vision.” 

The Nordics’ vision inspired them to fight for and achieve it.  In the United States, we’ve put off making a rough agreement on a broad vision.  Bernie Sanders’ campaign list of good policies wasn’t the same as a model that shows how justice, equity and freedom would work.

"Americans might be ready not only to make rough agreements on a common vision, but also to build a broad, inclusive strategy. The strategy will take account of our diverse strengths and the weaknesses of our opponents."

A few weeks after my book was published the Movement for Black Lives released its vision. The economic pillars of the Movement’s vision, it turns out, are in alignment with what the Nordics proved actually work for delivering more justice and equality.  I mention that fact frequently in radio interviews, and local Black Lives Matter participants who hear it come to the bookstores to learn more about the Scandinavian model. Largely-white organizations are also endorsing the vision of the Movement for Black Lives.

Winning strategies require not only vision, but also a plan for how to get there.  Inspired by the strategy dialogues in bookstores, I woke up ready to write the morning after joining the Women’s March with 100,000 others in San Francisco. I wrote a ‘Ten-point plan to stop Trump and make gains in justice and equality.”

The national organizers for the Women’s March declared the Plan a “must-read” and it went viral.  Americans might be ready not only to make rough agreements on a common vision, but also to build a broad, inclusive strategy. The strategy will take account of our diverse strengths and the weaknesses of our opponents.  It will note the pillars that the 1 percent counts on and suggest practical ways of undermining those pillars of support. 

We’ll build into our strategy lessons from our past successes as well as successes of others. The Nordics learned to see through the pretend democracies of their day. They learned not to expect unaccountable parliamentary parties to do their job for them.  They built independent movements rather than letting them be co-opted by existing political parties.

Another strategic choice many successful struggles have made, including the Nordics, is to meet repressive violence by escalating our own nonviolent tactics.  Movements in a wide variety of countries have done what the Swedes did in 1931: when government troops massacred unarmed striking workers, the movement responded with a general strike that brought down the government. 

The most stimulating way I know to stir collective thought about vision and strategy is to draw from the concrete experience of other people who have been as hungry for change as we are. 

I’ve therefore extended my book tour for half a year more. In this period I’ll turn 80. This is a good time for a movement elder to be on the road. 

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
George Lakey

George Lakey

George Lakey is an activist sociologist and author who recently retired as professor at Swarthmore College. He is the author of "Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right and How We Can, Too"(Melville House, NY & London) and "Toward a Living Revolution: A Five-Stage Framework for Creating Radical Social Change." He has led over 1500 social change workshops on five continents and led projects on local, national and international levels. His first time arrested was in the civil rights movement; recently he went to jail in the successful campaign to stop the nation's seventh-largest bank from financing mountaintop removal coal mining.

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