The National Review has a new piece on socialism in Scandinavia. And it notes the continual history of the US left in appealing to the Nordic welfare state model. They don’t appear to be arguing against the system directly, but they raise the question of the whiteness of Scandinavia. And why is it that the left appeals to such a racially not diverse area as a model and never to third world contexts when comparing the US. Is there something white about socialism that is not being acknowledged?
Yes and no and in some ways NR fails to acknowledge the racial components to the argument they are raising. Because whenever you point to 5 weeks paid vacation, free tuition, single payer health care, 80% unionization rates in comparison to the US we are told we cannot have such things. That it is not fair to compare the US to Scandinavia because they are so “homogenous”, which strikes me as an oblique way of saying they are all white. And that reveals some things worthy of note.
Race has something to do with social solidarity. NR’s opposition to the latter indicates how the magazine really is not conservative, it is capitalist. And the latter has a way of wrecking havoc on conservative values of place, family, tradition, and the like. NR can’t imagine social solidarity except on the basis of force but Scandinavian culture because it has been homogenous, works largely on a voluntary basis, a cultural basis.
When you all have largely the same values, when you all look the same, when you all participate in the same organizations from sports clubs to unions, when you are all lapsed Lutherans, you are likely to see the other person as yourself. And then the basis of the welfare state becomes clear. You take care of your friends and family. Because they are like you or you could be in the same boat.
This is why so many conservative friends of mine are some of the most generous people I know, when it involves their children, their friends, family and community. And then can move to sound ruthless and heartless when relating to some generic category like “the poor” or people on welfare and food stamps. The jump is between people like you, who are invariably hard on their luck, versus people you don’t, who must be abusing the system. In other words, you have now an “other.”
As the NR piece notes, this consensus in Scandinavia is falling apart because now they have an “other”. It’s called immigrants, refugees. And you see the rise of the far right in these countries who have organized themselves against the “other”. And the social solidarity behind the system falls apart. The language against immigrants their strikes me as the language against racial minorities in the US.
Racism, Paul Krugman, identifies as the original sin of the United States. Because racism blocks any possibilities of social solidarity and therefore the possibilities of solving problems that benefit everyone. Because there is always a fear that the “the other” is not worthy of the same treatment and benefits as oneself. Which is why invariably for the right, African Americans and Latinos are the face of welfare.
The GOP here in Oklahoma have gotten into trouble with this as of late as they have had recent posts on their Facebook pages, likening food stamp recepients to animals and welfare as a black issue. That is not an accident. That has been cultivated for many many decades, to otherize the poor and make it impossible to build support for a safety net.
How does one overcome that? First universal programs versus targeted programs. Even if it makes sense, for instance, for social security not to go to the wealthiest, I would oppose any means testing for it. Why? Because then social security would become a welfare program for “those people” and the support for the program would shrivel up. It is only because *everyone* participates and benefits, that it’s possible to defend the program.
Secondly, it indicates what all the anti racism groups have pointed out, you cannot get to social solidarity and economic justice by doing a detour around the question of race. Racism in its own right must be tackled. Only if everyone is deserving of equal treatment and rights can you begin the task of building social solidarity. All the anti racism work being done by activists including #blacklivesmatter is the starting place for this.
Thirdly, I have to think Robert Putnam, is on to something that the building of shared lives in communities from the church to other associational groups matters in resisting capitalism. What one author calls free spaces, where an shared identity apart from the dictates of the market matters. When I’ve read up on the history of union organizing, those communities that had those networks and associations, were the most receptive to unions. Those that did not have such groups and ways of relating to each other, were not.
One last thought about Scandinavian socialism. It is obvious why they are used as an example versus the third world. They have the comparative wealth and living standards. They have had healthy democratic institutions. Comparing the west to the west is more easily done than other areas of the world. Though when you get similar results in country after country, one should note a pattern. We’re not talking about a unique case.
And I would note that in Brazil, the worker’s party there reduced poverty by an astonishing rate. Social democracy in Latin America has introduced a new framework for thinking about solving problems that some have treated as intractable. And as Europe is disciplined under the financial system of the EU, looking at places of resistance from Greece to Spain may be more instructive than the Nordic system in the future.
And you might have to start dividing up Scandinavia, as Finland suffers under austerity while Norway, Denmark and Sweden, retain their own currencies and have resulting economic growth. The shared similarities in the region are becoming less shared as the EU has introduced policies which have begun to divide up the region. Those international financial regimes means challenge for the left in Europe and around the world to tackle.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma