Critiquing the Nordic Model

Much has been made about the SNP's new “blueprint” for an independent Scotland, which indicates a move away from the mooted Nordic model towards a more neo-liberal prospectus. But Hugh Cullen, Scottish Socialist Party organiser in the Lothians and member of the party's NEC, argues the Nordic model itself is no quick fix and fails to address key issues...

Near the end of this month, the author, socialist activist and trade union leader Asbjørn Wahl will be speaking at a Scottish Socialist Voice forum in Edinburgh. He may not be well known to readers, but there are few people with greater insight to the potential gains and ultimate limitations of social democracy. Hailing from Norway, perceived by many as an inspiring panacea whose example Scotland should follow, he is a trade union leader on the front line of the fight to resist the last 20 years of austerity and attacks on workers in Norway and across the world.

Despite Norway's successes, he argues the process his home country has undergone as “supping with the devil”. It's something we in Scotland can learn a lot from. I attended both the recent Scottish Independence Convention and Radical Independence Campaign conferences (not so aptly named as no decisions were made) and found myself disappointed at the lack of direction and ambition coming from the platforms.

Since defeat in 2014, due to an inability to convince Scotland’s working class majority of the gains that can be made from Independence, key events in our movement have rolled out the red carpet for speakers who have told the audience to imagine a “better Scotland” based on liberal principles. Nations with social democratic programmes are held up as end goals we should strive to imitate.

While this vision, championed by Lesley Riddoch and peddled by ‘left voices’ in the Greens, SNP and other pro-independence charismas, is undoubtedly better than the neoliberal UK plc that we currently suffer, there are lessons to be learned from Whal’s analysis of his native Scandinavia if there is to be a meaningful and lasting transformation of the economy.

Whal notes that a force of organised labour was able to make significant gains in Norway when the social democratic Labour Party won power ahead of the second world war. However, this included “the acceptance of major political interventions in the market. Thus, the basis was laid for great social progress for workers. The welfare state developed. The Norwegian, or Nordic, model came into being.”

At this point, however, the leader of the workers movement effectively entered into a compromise with the forces of capital. This ideology of ‘social partnership’ is a form of Keynesian economics based on the belief that “employers also understood that cooperation, rather than struggle, was in their interest”.

The problem? They failed to take that final step to take ownership of the means of production. They left behind a system where the workers who created all the wealth had to annually negotiate their share of that wealth at a table with the bosses. While this ended an era of desperate poverty and mass unemployment, the forces that had won these gains dissipated. Understandably- off to enjoy the spoils of their victory and get some rest. Yet along with them went the energy and power of class struggle.

The nature of capitalism is that in order to survive, owners must perpetually grow and accumulate more and more capital at the expense of others. Bosses began to claw back the gains of the early to mid twentieth century, primarily because workers' power had waned, there were few flagship gains to be made, and many remained under the illusion that this 'Nordic paradise' would sustain itself.

Countries don't exist in isolation and we live in a perpetually globalising world. The neo-liberal counter-revolution that took place across Europe pressured Scandinavian nations to reform in order to stay competitive and keep growing returns for shareholders. Wahl (below) says that: "Compliance towards the neoliberal offensive became the answer. Gradually, social democratic parties adopted more and more of the neoliberal agenda – with privatisation, deregulation and restructuring of the public sector to market-oriented New Public Management-inspired organizational and management models."

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Perhaps even more worryingly, Wahl attributes this directly to the rising right-wing sentiment among workers in Norway. As conditions deteriorated under a supposedly “left wing” system, the working class began to draw xenophobic conclusions. Whilst Labour remains the largest party in Norway by percentage of vote, the ruling Conservatives are in coalition with far right populists, ironically named Progress. This reality is one that blind followers of the Scandinavian model seem to fail to grasp.

This pattern is of course familiar in the UK: the post-war Keynesian gains of the Attlee government in Britain were concessions as much as anything, designed to quell potential revolution as workers returned from the war, determined for it to not have been in vain. Like our Scandinavian cousins, much of the public was satisfied with a welfare state and job creation. We were given a bigger slice of the cake so we wouldn't take the bakery.

The key difference is that the UK bosses' counter-reforms were far less subtle, carried out under the banner of Thatcherism. It led to the casualised precariat economy we know today, composed of a property-hungry workforce with individualised aspirations. The lesson is clear: when building forces for change, we must have a clear understanding of the importance of ownership in any economic model. We must be prepared to challenge capital, not compromise with it, if any gains are to be maintained and we are to break from the perpetual pendulum that swings between workers and bosses.

This isn't a new concept: Marx identified ownership as the fundamental difference between the classes in capitalism, and therefore the source of all inequalities in society. Yet this principle seems to have been lost by many Socialists today, who are more concerned with progressive politics that falls short of fundamental change.

When Wahl comes to Edinburgh, he will be discussing these themes in the context of Brexit, which he rightly describes as representing a “deep political and ideological crisis in the left”. How can we influence a debate that is dominated by right wing ideas on both sides, from Nationalist Brexiteers to free-market Europhiles? His case study in Social Democracy undermines those in the SNP and the Greens, whose soft-left ideological focus now dominates the independence movement, but it also exposes the limits of Labourism, even while Corbyn is leader.

The Labour Party remains wedded to the British establishment, infiltrated by landlords and the very owners of capital that we seek to overthrow. It's still a revolving door for aristocracy and big-business. Corbyn, while admirable in spirit and voice, remains fixated on student issues and anti-democratic pro-market institutions like the EU and the British State, and not on fundamental class politics. He continues to make numerous concessions to the right of his party, while they still sharpen their knives.

Labour remains the bosses' second choice and even though a Corbyn Government would likely represent gains for workers, but they would be a fragile plaster easy to rip off, probably by a challenger from his own party waiting in the wings. The challenge is to instead build a party with a clear and united vision, an Independent Socialist Scotland based on ambitions of changing the balance of power in the economy permanently. A Socialist Party that is not distracted by liberal identity politics or social democracy as ‘easier’ escape routes from the current dungeon. A Socialist Party that understands the consequences of comprising with capital.  

A £10 an hour living wage, public ownership and mass-building of social housing are necessary reforms needed to build class consciousness and combative spirit are potentially revolutionary steps in the context of our present neoliberal trajectory and individualised society, and would represent vital gains for workers conditions.

A strong and diverse Socialist Party will have an influence on any future independence campaign. We can continue to orient the campaign towards issues that will genuinely improve the lives of workers and challenge the issue of ownership in Scotland. We can develop a new generation of organisers and activists schooled in the economic theory necessary to build this new world. Discipline on issues like ownership remain more important than ever because – ultimately – there are no shortcuts to socialism.

Read more on the event here.