Sunday, November 19, 2017

Equality Beats Inequality

"Viking Economics - How the Scandinavians Got it Right - and How We Can Too," by George Lakey, 2016

If any book will make you a militant social-democrat, this is it.  The comparison between Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland to the shabby, reactionary state of the U.S. is extreme, to the detriment of the latter.   Lakey, using both his political understanding and his long residency in Norway, hammers on how U.S. capitalism is cruel and bloodthirsty - primitive under a modern veneer, while the "Nordics" are on the right track in almost every area which concerns ordinary people.  However, his somewhat starry view of bringing this social democracy to the U.S. is basically flawed.  That later.

Norwegian Labour Party Poster 1930s
Lakey makes many arguments against U.S. capital that Marxists also make.  It is an enjoyable and easy read, with statistics and clear comparison's that leave little doubt about 'who' is right in this battle of social economics.  Because economics is not a 'science' - it is a social question that boils down to:  "Who benefits?"  Lakey clearly sees that a society that is more equal, where labor has a significant amount of power, where co-ops and cooperation exist on a mass scale, where significant Labor Parties hold political power, is better in every way than the model of dog-eat-dog competition.  There is less crime, less suicide and mental problems, less unemployment, less despoliation of the environment, less ignorance and fear, less racism and nationalism, less poverty, less sickness, less stress and frankly, regular people are far happier.

Lakey points out that the early Viking pagan culture actually provided a different and more equal template for social life than the later Christian medieval culture - and this still plays out in present day Scandinavia.

One of the most significant points he makes is that these countries are not 'welfare states.'  That is a misnomer based on reactionary political confusion.  Unlike the U.S., where 'special' programs are targeted at the 'poor' - the social-democratic economies are 'universal service states,' as he calls them.  Since nearly everyone benefits, those at the bottom of the economic class structure are not stigmatized and penalized and turned into a pariah class or ethnicity, as in the U.S.  U.S. liberals love the U.S. 'welfare' state because it pretends to solve the problem.  It does not and it has not - it only continues the problem and exacerbates racism and classicism.  It is the government version of religiously-motivated charity.  When I was on welfare years ago, I sold a communist paper in the welfare offices with the line, "Get rid of the welfare system."  Sold tons of papers to those trapped in it.

Here are some points made by Lakey:

1. Like many other capitalist countries in the 1880s, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark had terrible economies which forced many to flee to the U.S. in search of a better life.  Sort of the Mexico's and Latin Americas of their time.  So it was not always so...
2. The Nordics support 'flexicurity' which means that specific jobs are not guaranteed, but free job retraining and 90% unemployment insurance is guaranteed.
3. Government housing banks exist to help people buy or build homes inexpensively.
4. The Nordics believe that everyone has to work to contribute to society.  Work is both a social and a personal necessity.  This echoes Marx, who understood that labor is at the center of society.
5.  3 of these 5 nations are in the EU, with Iceland and Norway not members.  But only Finland uses the Euro as currency, reflecting the other's fears of the imperial bankers of Frankfurt, Paris and still, London.
6.  The neo-liberal banking and securities crises of the 1980s and 2008 affirmed Nordic social-democracy, and turned back attempts to derail those systems.  Iceland, by letting its over-leveraged capitalist banks fail in 2008, actually has recovered more quickly than countries who propped them up like the U.S.
7.  Norway became social-democratic in the early 1920s because of a very strong Communist and Socialist labor movement which led the unions.  They started a Labor Party in 1899.
8. This strain of socialist laborism was the dominant force among the populations of every one of these countries, and the reason the capitalists had to make a 'social compact.'  The Left sought dialectical polarization, not accommodation.  Class struggle and fear of revolution created social-democracy, not liberalism.   
9.  As a result, these societies have free health care, free education, full employment, inexpensive or free daycare, powerful trade unions and efficient transport systems.
10.  Lakey points out that there are more successful entrepreneurs in these countries than in the U.S., where the U.S. 'Small' Business Administration is a misnomer.
11.  There is a massive non-capitalist cooperative sector in these economies, in retail, insurance, farming, banking, housing and production.
12.  Small farming is the agriculture model, not massive large farms. Farmers have unions and negotiate prices with the government.  Crop prices are protected. Family farming has been preserved.
13.  The 'universal service state' has reduced poverty to low levels not seen in almost any other country.
14.  Crime is so low that it has to be remembered through Nordic crime novels.
15.  Gender and ethnic rights are far stronger than in the U.S.  Life-long learning is part of the free education system.  There is no student debt.
16.  The Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, the biggest in the world (!), recently announced it is divesting from oil and gas.  On windy days, Denmark gets all of its power from wind turbines, sometimes exporting that power to Germany.  These are indications that global warming is not a 'theory' in the Nordic countries.
17.  Taxes are the main bugaboo in the U.S.  Nordic countries use taxes to actually get something for the vast majority of people.  In the U.S. the rich and the corporations avoid them and get corporate welfare instead.  U.S. taxes are moving to sales taxes and property taxes, which directly impact working people and housing, letting the rich off the hook.

Is this rosy story exportable to the main imperial power of world capitalism?  Just asking the question answers it.  Lakey's main problem is that he does not treat capitalism as a world system.  Instead he wants to carve out a capitalism with a human face, sort of a counter-culture niche living within the war-making, IMF controlled, transnational beast.   It can certainly be done for awhile, but even he admits that class struggle still exists in the Nordics due to the presence of the internal capitalist class and their upper-class allies.  And world capital, though that he does not mention. 

The other problem is that Lakey thinks just presenting these 'great examples' will suddenly prompt the sad political culture of the U.S. to change.  While Bernie Sanders, who Lakey pointed out is to the right of the Nordics, brought up some of these issues, Sanders collapsed back into the neo-liberal Democratic Party at the crucial moment.  Lakey makes no mention of the role of the U.S. ruling class, military and propaganda network in maintaining world-wide exploitation.  Lakey makes no mention of the need for a Labor Party in the U.S.  He makes no mention of the need for a strong socialist and communist movement in the U.S.  He makes no mention of the rotten state of the AFL-CIO or "Change to Win" labor federation leaderships. Yet correcting this was essential to the founding of these social-democratic societies.  You can't get to the social-democratic moon with a tricycle.  And Lakey offers a tricycle. 

Actual socialism and class struggle is still verboten in the U.S. on the ground level, though it is gaining ideological strength.  DSA and Socialist Alternative are gaining members, as is the IWW, but their sizes are still small.  In a recent city council election in Minneapolis' 3rd Ward, a female socialist from Socialist Alternative won the majority of first round votes but due to IRV, lost to a bureaucratic white male Democrat.  So voters still don't get it.  Certainly no one but the heavily deluded believes the Republican Party can do anything for the working class.  But the Democratic Party is the main roadblock to social-democracy, not the avenue through which it will be attained!  Lakey mentions none of this.  His U.S. citations - familiar people like Stiglitz, Galbraith, Sachs, Alperovitz, Krugman, Piven, Perlstein, Nichols - are all basically Democrats.  

Lakey is a pacifist and a Quaker and is certainly aware of the problems of the Democratic Party and perhaps U.S. imperialism.  His Nordic examples show that a mixed economy capitalism with a human face is possible somewhere.   But he fails to bring a wider understanding to bear on the U.S. and thus undermines his whole argument. 

Prior review of "The Vikings" TV series, as well as a history of Viking societies, below. Travel notes on Helsinki and a novel about Iceland, below.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
November 19, 2017

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