EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in our March/April 2020 print edition. Since then, as Covid-19 has exploded in the United States—particularly in Houston, Texas—and almost entirely disappeared from Norway, we find that the contrasts highlighted in this essay are more relevant than ever.
I am not used to people respecting laws. Growing up in a wealthy exurb of Houston, I know that shiny muscle cars are meant to be purchased by rich oil families to give to their 16 year-old kids to race down empty streets while drunk early in the morning. I know that taxes are a terrible sham that should never be paid. And, as a journalist based in the Middle East, I know the only way to get across the street is to weave in between fast-moving cars, since there are no real sidewalks (and also that taxes are a terrible sham that should never be paid). For much of my life, I’ve taken this kind of chaos to be a central organizing factor in civic life across the globe: laws are made by disconnected politicians and enforced by bloodless bureaucrats; laws should be broken because they are impediments to your individual success.
So the first time I visited Norway—to meet my partner’s family—I was surprised to find a world where no one operated in this way. People in cars not only followed traffic laws, but pedestrians were genuinely expected to wait their turn to cross the road. Rather than be seen as a terrible sham, taxes were considered a civic duty; a contribution to a system that helps ensure a stable, prosperous life to all. People worked 7.5 hour days, and went jogging and skiing as if it were legally mandated. They ate boring but healthy food, and lived long lives. In the winter, they lit candles, drank dark beer and aquavit liquor, and vacationed in the mountains for weeks at a time. In the summer, they switched to light beer and relaxed along Norway’s beaches, again for weeks at a time. There was a collective sense that orderliness was maintained by investing in the commons and taking plenty of time off work. It was all so damned rational and based on what seems like a scientific method of living well. I found it all sickeningly sweet.
Since Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run, talk of the ‘Nordic model’ of governance has swept through American political conversations. Leftists point to Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland as examples where governments have successfully implemented lasting welfare policies, which distribute wealth more effectively than the unfettered ‘bootstrap’ capitalist wasteland America has decayed into. People in Scandinavian countries have higher life expectancies, higher wages, less working hours, more leisure time, better health care, and generally score higher on happiness indices. “There is no question that Finland, as well as other Scandinavian countries have much to be proud of,” Sanders said in a 2008 speech. “These are models, it seems to me, that we can learn from.”
It’s an alluring set of facts, and a whole subcategory of politicians, analysts and scholars are dedicated to trying to transport the Nordic model to other countries around the world. But there’s also a contrarian army who argue the Nordic model either only works for Scandinavia or doesn’t work at all, so it’s obviously doomed to fail in the United States and we shouldn’t even try. Socialism collapsed Sweden’s economy and almost threw it into a full-blown dictatorship during a banking crisis in the early 1990s, the Federalist decries. Socialism makes people lazier, maintains CATO senior fellow Johan Norberg. Meanwhile, Jim Geraghty of the National Review asked why Nordic countries ranked in the top 12 users of antidepressants, if American capitalism is so much worse. “Isn’t it possible,” Geraghty asked, “that a generous, far-reaching welfare state depletes people’s sense of drive, purpose, and self-respect, and enables them to explore chemical forms of happiness?” Still others argue that the only reason Scandinavia can have its great welfare state is because it is racially homogenous, implying that the only way to curb the worst instincts of capitalism is to create stratified ethno-states. “Finland is as big as two Missouris, but with just 5.2 million residents, it’s ethnically and religiously homogeneous,” former Washington Post journalist Robert Kaiser writes. “A strong Lutheran work ethic, combined with a powerful sense of probity, dominates the society. Homogeneity has led to consensus.”
Before visiting the region and learning its political history, I was susceptible to these types of arguments. They were so easy to point out. Scandinavia is a few tiny resort clubs compared to the big hulking mammoth of the United States. We’re too messy, diverse, and populous to look like them, I thought in passing moments. I now know this conversation gets something wrong about the Nordic model. Discussions of the model often frame it as though Scandinavian policies were made in a governance laboratory by experts tasked with calculating What Is Best. According to this myth, Scandinavian politicians figured out that welfare states simply worked well for them, so they made them happen. If this were true, then all we need to do to improve the United States is to create a list of appealing policies, have American policymakers champion them, then let a team of experts implement everything. But this frame ignores the powerful social forces that mobilized and built the Nordic model in the first place.
Norwegian policies stem from decades of civil and political struggle, radical labor militancy and formal integration through a representative government. If Norway seems idyllic and orderly today, it’s because Norwegians, for the most part, identify themselves with a history of socialist solidarity and a collective past memorializing that struggle. By the same token, one reason why the United States doesn’t look like Norway or Sweden now is that organized labor efforts were stifled during the 20th century. Labor interests weren’t able to form parties in government and were often violently put down. It is a mistake to assume Norwegians magically relegated the market away from controlling their lives, or that they were able to spontaneously fabricate social cohesion out of their supposed homogenous ethnic makeup. On the contrary, Norwegians fought tooth and nail for their welfare state. So did the Finns, Swedes, and Danes. These policies—and the mindsets that inform them—are byproducts of a powerful, multifaceted movement which generated popular demands for more humane policies and a discourse about the good life that shaped their government for decades.
The Norwegian Mindset
Norwegians love looking like each other. I am only half-joking. It really does seem they consciously cultivate a sense of a shared identity. One of the first things I noticed about Norwegians is how similar their attire is: it’s a lot of loose-fitting mom jeans, neutral dark colors, and chunky shoes. Standing out by wearing bright colors and flashy clothes is quietly stigmatized. And if you’re looking for a soda, there is apparently only one that is revered by the whole country: Pepsi Max. Signs for Pepsi Max saturate every major Norwegian city, and in the aisles of every single one of Norway’s boutique-sized grocery stores, I could always find a sizable mountain of stacked Pepsi Max bottles. I do not know why this is, and Norwegians don’t seem to know either.
Even in their food, Norwegians are trained from an early age to emphasize modesty. “In Norway, you’re not supposed to look forward to your lunch,” Ronald Sagatun, a Norwegian YouTuber focused on culture quipped to the BBC about the tradition. “It’s kind of a strict thing. [Lunch is] easy to make, easy to carry around, easy to eat, but it should be a disappointment.” Many Norwegians’ diets are based around putting small amounts of fish, cheese, and spreads on crisp bread (Knekkebrød), and eating rationally distributed portions of well-balanced, boringly healthy food, usually in packed lunches called matpakke.
Scandinavia’s relationship to humility and the collective over the individual was satirized in 1933 by Askel Sandemose, a Danish-Norwegian author, in his book A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. Sandemose writes of a small, fictional Danish town called Jante, which lives under ten laws:
- Do not think you are anything special.
- Do not think you are as good as us.
- Do not think you are smarter than us.
- Do not imagine yourself better than us.
- Do not think you know more than us.
- Do not think you are more important than us.
- Do not think you are good at anything.
- Do not laugh at us.
- Do not think anyone cares about you.
- Do not think you can teach us anything.
These ‘laws,’ known as Janteloven, are worded as stern commands but reflect a pervasive mindset that still holds sway in Norway and its neighboring countries. Norwegian friends I’ve spoken to have a mixed relationship to the social codes, but still feel compelled by their emphasis on the collective. A few have even taken vows to give away the money they receive from their inheritance out of a personal sense that the money ought to be redistributed more equitably.
Comparatively, I spent the first 18 years of my life in what could be Jante’s nemesis: Cypress, Texas. A sprawling conservative town outside Houston, Cypress is populated by families in constant competition with one another: for the most gargantuan McMansion, for the biggest backyard pool and barbecue pit, for the best school grades and acceptance into the most prestigious, selective universities, for the role of president in the highest number of extracurricular clubs. The governing rules were a practical reversal of Janteloven: the point of every activity was to beat others, whom we were encouraged to imagine as part of a collective, sure, but an antagonistic one. Every home was built inwards, with high fences guarding their yards. A labyrinth of malls anchored social life.
My family was poor, though. While we were once steadily middle class, the 2008 financial crisis devastated us. In my junior year of high school, my parents lost their seemingly stable jobs, and while friends skied in Colorado over Christmas break, I started working to help pay gas, electricity, and water bills. When classmates spoke of house renovations and fancy food like broccolini, I thought quietly about my microwave meals and the foreclosure letter sitting on the kitchen table staring back at me. Surrounded by Cypress’ ostentatious wealth during the Great Recession, I couldn’t help but feel that I was on the losing side of a game everyone else was winning. I was the sucker who naively thought a collective sense of responsibility would save my family: that the federal government would bail us out somehow. Even though we qualified for food stamps, we rarely used them. They signified to others that we were falling behind, and my mom was too proud to admit that. So we grew increasingly isolated as the recession deepened, and I began to steal food from local grocery stores until I got caught senior year. My only solution was to try and escape by getting a scholarship to a private school in the Northeast.
Einar Gerhardsen and Norway’s Labor Revolt
Around 100 years ago, Norway was caught in an economic crisis not too different from the Great Recession. From the mid-1870s until the eve of World War II, Norway experienced rapid cycles of boom and bust. Historically a relatively poor whaling, fishing, and agricultural economy, the country began quickly industrializing while droves of Norwegians emigrated to America. The political activist and Labour politician Einar Gerhardsen was born in Oslo during this time, to a working-class family that could barely afford food and clothes. As a young man, Gerhardsen became a construction worker and then began labor organizing efforts. In the late 1910s, Gerhardsen, along with revolutionaries like Martin Tranmæl and Oscar Torp, began taking over the Labour Party and orienting it around a socialist labor agenda. Tranmæl became the de facto leader of the Labour Party, and helped to secure Gerhardsen a national role in the party while forming alliances with communists and social democrats. Gerhardsen and his new Labour allies then worked to develop an expansive platform for workers’ rights.
In 1921, when Norway’s GDP fell by 11 percent, Gerhardsen helped plan a major strike and encouraged workers to bring dynamite. A few years later, he was thrown in jail for organizing laborers in a paramilitary fashion. Gerhardsen, Tranmæl, Torp and others were busy organizing strikes with unions while serving in the Labour Party, often oscillating between jail cells and official party roles. Untamed by his jail time, Gerhardsen then organized a campaign to “fill the prisons,” urging unemployed people to steal food from shops en masse in 1927. At one point, he threaten to ‘raise a guillotine’ against Norway’s bourgeois society, who controlled a disproportionate amount of the country’s wealth.
When the Nazis took over Norway in 1940, Gerhardsen, who happened to be the mayor of Oslo at the time, became active in the resistance. The Nazis captured him in September 1941, sending him to Germany where he was sentenced to death. Lucky for him, a Nazi officer covertly involved in the resistance helped save his life by transferring him back to Norway. During his time in the resistance and his imprisonment, Gerhardsen cultivated a wide range of political contacts including communists, antifascists, members of the Christian Democrats, and conservatives to back the Labour Party’s so-called “People’s Front Strategy,” which called for remaking Norway in a democratic socialist vein.
After the war, Gerhardsen was considered a national hero. He resumed his role as mayor of Oslo on April 7, 1945—exactly one day after he was freed by the Allies. In May, he took over as leader of the Labour Party. A few short months after that, Gerhardsen was elected Prime Minister in a landslide. At the time, Norway was a middle-income European country with nowhere near the wealth it enjoys today. Wielding the multifaceted political forces and tactics that Gerhardson and his allies had gathered before the war, Labour rebuilt Norway with socialist welfare policies. Gerhardsen held the post of Prime Minister, with almost no interruption, from 1945 until 1965. “Rather than gold streets, we would have good food,” Gerhardsen later said of his political vision. And indeed, in those two decades, the government increased public spending to account for around a third of its GDP, and ensured unemployment “barely existed,” as one economic history of Norway puts it. It also introduced sharp progressive taxation to pay for a comprehensive welfare state that encompassed schooling, health insurance, pensions, housing protections, and worker rights. Gerhardsen’s initial policies generated more demand for a socialist agenda, giving his government a democratic mandate to further expand Norwegian welfare programs. Gerhardsen’s stated view was simply that governance should always be moving “in a socialist direction.”
Though his Labour government was voted out of power following a mining accident in 1962, he was still urging Norwegians to engage in a “slow revolution” to socialism just a few years before his death in 1987. For his radical achievements, he is known as Landsfaderen, “the father of the nation.” Today, he’s celebrated as a champion not only of groundbreaking accomplishments, but also of Norway’s ideals: concern for the commons, an uncompromising moral clarity, and a tireless work ethic to realize a humane vision for society. Of course, he was not alone in governing Norway: figures like Labour Party secretary Haakon Lie helped maintain party discipline for their broad governing paradigm. Oscar Torp, a prominent figure in Labour, also led the government from 1951-1955 while Gerhardsen took a brief break from his role as Prime Minister. And these are just the big names, the ones prominently etched into Norway’s history. The thousands who mobilized in the streets during the 1920s and the tireless union leaders, activists, and local politicians who organized throughout the 20th century were vital in securing the welfare state.
In this political climate where collectivist discourse dominated, Norway found oil off its shores. A lot of it. An initial small find in 1963 turned into a gigantic economic opportunity by the late 1960s with the discovery of the Ekofisk oil field, deemed to be one of the largest in the world. Thanks to the highly socialistic welfare state the government had created, and a mandate to bolster the commons, Norway nationalized its oil production and channeled the money into a sovereign wealth fund. To this day, management of the fund is guided by the “ten oil commandments,” designed to ensure the capital garnered from oil “belong[s] to the people.”
In the 1970s, Norwegians saw their quality of life improve thanks to oil riches, but were keenly aware of their position relative to the rest of the world. In a hilariously revealing 1975 Gallup survey of Norwegians, 76 percent of them felt they were too well off compared to other people. An overwhelming 90 percent also thought they were eating too much, showing the extent to which the Law of Jante impacted their thinking. At the time, Norway’s per capita gross national product was only $50 more than the U.S.’s, and $1,300 less than Sweden. The same Gallup poll showed that the majority of Norwegians wanted to see oil capital strengthen social services rather than reduce their taxes.
While these widespread sentiments illustrate how far America—and my Texan hometown—have to go before it develops as noble an ethos for the commons, there is much we can learn from this Norwegian history of struggle. It is true that Norway benefited from a deep well of oil (which, given the realities of climate change, is not a stable foundation for social well-being). But Norway’s robust welfare state predated the oil’s discovery, which made an enormous difference. Rather than lead by asking what to do with the enormous wealth they stumbled upon, Norwegians asked how to best guarantee the rights of people given their new resources. This mentality, borne from a militant labor struggle and a multifaceted anti-fascist movement crafting a national vision, still informs Norwegian politics today, and can serve as a model for other movements seeking to gain political power.
Fruits of a Struggle
Today, Norway is considered a social democracy. It enjoys socialized healthcare and virtually free public university education. Most Norwegians work 37.5 hour weeks, overtime is reliably paid, paid maternity and paternity leave is guaranteed for almost twelve months, and most workers get five weeks of paid vacation a year (most often taken during the summer). Norway has one of the lowest rates of income inequality on Earth. Concern for the commons even extends to their prison system, which emphasizes rehabilitating individuals back into society and enjoys one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world. Norway is also one of the few countries on Earth with a nearly universal ‘Right to Roam,’ meaning everyone is entitled to camp almost anywhere in the country, even without permission from a landowner.
Much of the country’s economy is dominated by fully or partially state-owned corporations like Telenor, the national telecommunications company; Norsk Hydro, one of the largest aluminum companies on Earth; and Equinor, Norway’s oil and gas company. A large segment of the economy is also made up of worker-owned cooperatives like Tine, the country’s largest dairy producer; Coop Norge, one of the world’s largest retail cooperatives; OBOS BBL, one of the biggest housing co-ops in the world; and KLP, which is the country’s biggest pension company. In practical terms, the prevalence of cooperatives means thousands of Norwegian workers are partial owners of their company, ensuring a level of power that cannot be taken away. To call Norway a mixed economy is correct, but it’s fairer to say that even the capitalist parts are not necessarily owned by capitalists.
The approach to taxes is also different. In Norway, taxes are automatically processed and publicly viewable, meaning you can look up anybody’s tax returns and see how much they make. This unique tool speaks volumes about how different the Norwegian conception of taxes are compared to the United States. In the Janteloven-like social code, it is important for Norwegians to know where they stand in relation to each other economically, and this system reflects this value. With a system like this here, we wouldn’t have to depend on the strange norm of depending on politicians’ personal openness in order to view their tax records.
In the collective imagination of Norwegian society, the worker looms large, taking cues from Gerhardsen, who wrote a letter to himself in 1922—when he left his construction job to be a union official—saying that “he must always be faithful to the workers who form the roots of the labor movement.” These economic arrangements are not mere concessions by a government or boss. Instead, they are byproducts of a working class that exercised its power to demand these concessions. The Nordic model understands the market as a limited vehicle for acquiring some goods and services, and not as a mystical ideal around which to organize hopes and ambitions. It is a proud antithesis to the American ‘hustle culture,’ where not taking a summer vacation is common. In Norway, companies must secure permission from the government before assigning any individual too much overtime.
Norway is not without its challenges, many of which come from neoliberal and right-leaning political forces that seek to degrade its socialist underpinnings. Successive right-wing governments led by Conservative Party leader Erna Solberg, with help from a consortium of center-right parties, have sought to privatize sections of its mixed economy. Parts of Norway’s extensive train routes are being sold off to private international transportation companies, to the chagrin of its train operators who went on strike in October 2019 to protest. Under the Solberg government, Norway has begun privatizing parts of its military infrastructure. Throughout the Nordic region, education is increasingly being treated more as a commodity with increasing emphasis on evaluating students and their teachers according to standardized test scores, and there’s a subtle push in the curriculum towards instrumentalizing knowledge for specific ends. “There was a shift from the concept of becoming a student for self-cultivation and truth to becoming a market-oriented customer of learning opportunities,” as one 2016 study focusing on Scandinavia’s education system notes.
This has invited yet more privatization efforts, which have led to a steep rise in private schools across the country. More generally, the percentage of people living in poverty increased from 7.7 percent to 9.3 percent from 2013-2017, the latest year for available data. (By contrast, the poverty rate in the United States for 2017 was between 12.3 and 13.9 percent, depending on sources). Income inequality rates have also steadily risen in Norway due to the lowered taxes on income, wealth, and inheritance implemented under Solberg. Even Gerhardsen’s Labour Party have adopted an increasingly neoliberal platform since the 1980s, allowing it to be outflanked on the left by vocal socialist parties including the Red Party and the Socialistic Left Party.
One scapegoat for the slow decline of the Nordic model is immigration. The argument goes like this: “Norway took in too many non-white migrants who didn’t share in the social vision developed by the white majority. As such, they are a danger to the social cohesion driving Norway forward.” Official party platforms are careful to word this ideology in acceptable terms, such as calling for “strict and responsible” immigration limits and subtly linking immigration with crime and terrorism. As Cecilia Marcela Bailliet, a professor at the University of Oslo, explains, “There has been a steady rise in xenophobia within Norway—as well as Scandinavia, Europe, and other regions in the world—based in part on xenophobic narratives promoted by the media, social media, populist parties, most prominently by FrP [the right-wing Progress Party], not Høyre [the center-right Conservative Party].” In March 2018, Sylvi Listhaug, a notorious far-right Norwegian politician and member of the Progress Party posted on Facebook, “[The] Labour [Party] thinks the rights of terrorists are more important than national security. Like and share.” The post set off a firestorm in the country, and Listhaug eventually resigned, but not before seeking harsher prison sentences for crimes committed in mostly immigrant-heavy neighborhoods.
The crackdown on immigrants in Norway is part of a popular racist sentiment that has made substantial gains throughout Europe and galvanized anxious voters to elect right-wing parties seeking to degrade the very welfare state that gave rise to popular conceptions of “the good life” in Europe. It has justified the current Norwegian government’s deportation of Afghan refugees to a warzone, where some have been subsequently killed. One might expect a particularly large amount of unrest and electoral backlash against migrant-friendly parties in places like Oslo, where a third of the population is either foreign-born or first-generation immigrants. But the opposite has happened. In the local elections of September 2019, leftist parties emphasized admitting more refugees and protecting the rights of asylum seekers. Voters rewarded them with huge electoral gains over the centrist and right-leaning parties that sought “strict” intake policies. So the idea that “democratic socialism only works in Norway because of their ethnic homogeneity” is false on several fronts: Norway, despite its fondness for uniformity in clothing, is not ethnically homogenous, and while it is currently experiencing right-wing backlash against immigrants, it’s no different in that respect than much of the rest of Europe, and in the meantime the most heavily migrant-settled city has reaffirmed its commitment to maintaining both the social welfare system and generous policies toward refugees.
But Can We Do It Here?
Would it work? Can we, and should we, take all or most of the political programs of Norway and apply them in the United States? The answer is yes, emphatically, but not in a technocratic, elitist style. Rather, policies like this have to develop from below. We should focus on building a grassroots movement that can generate a collective sense of the commons, which decommodifies essential goods like education and healthcare while harnessing the government to be more humane and responsive to our collective needs. President Obama’s aborted attempt to socialize healthcare in the United States is a cautionary tale here. Dismantling the grassroots organizing apparatus that thrust him into the White House was not only a tactical mistake, but also reflected a belief that technocratic tinkering—not populism—was the way to achieve Nordic-style governance. The result was a brittle-thin program that Republicans easily sabotaged. A democratic chorus threatening to vote out any politician who weakened Obamacare would have strengthened the program, and might have even given Obama a mandate to push for more ambitious reforms. This is how leftist activist and politician Einar Gerhardsen led Norway towards its ‘Nordic model,’ emphasizing the collective consciousness that remains its sociopolitical glue today. Viewed under this lens, the myriad efforts by socialist-minded politicians should not be the end goals of those political struggles, but rather as a part of building a broader movement to be wielded by a representative government.
The Great Recession, for many Americans, showed the terrible consequences of being atomized. Millions turned to opioids to numb the physical pain of being overworked and under-insured and the symbolic pain of feeling powerless. Thousands felt so helpless and abandoned that they committed suicide. In the midst of a new wave of deindustrialization and automation, many lost their jobs only to find out that their entire industry disappeared. Huge swathes of the population, my family included, have yet to recover from the recession; and now, thanks to the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, a new recession or even depression is upon us.
That these catastrophic effects have been experienced by millions is both a tragedy and opportunity to create a national movement towards a better democracy. While Occupy Wall Street lived only a brief life after the financial crisis of 2008, the anti-corporate movement played a critical role in shaping the discourse around equality and fairness, popularizing terms like the contrast of “the 1 percent” versus “the 99 percent,” which so often returns in the rhetoric of popular leftist politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Occupy helped make sense of Americans’ collective trauma the same way Einar Gerhardsen and his allies did in Norway when he seized on the economic depression of the 1920s to advocate for labor militancy, and encouraged unemployed Norwegians to steal food as a political statement. In the process of advocating for people to break exploitative laws, Gerhardsen created a new set of more humane rules that cultivated a cherished sense of the commons. And while Janteloven parodies this mindset, Norwegians have every reason to be proud of having integrated its socialist labor movement into law, instead of following the United States in violently suppressing it.
Norwegian happiness can be ours, too. We can insist that politicians speak in terms of economic justice and economic democracy. We can create new rules around these ideals. We can rewrite the expectations for our politicians, ousting the disconnected leaders who serve elite interests and ushering in representatives who believe in the power of the commons. The broad support that Sanders’ campaign achieved among young Americans, even if ultimately unsuccessful, still indicates that we have entered a new era. The path to achieve the kind of welfare state that Norway was able to build under Gerhardsen will be arduous and upset by obstacles. But we have a long, transnational history to draw from. Norwegians struggled long and hard for a better life. We can do the same.