How Swedes and Norwegians Broke the Power of the '1 Percent'
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While many of us are working to ensure that the Occupy movement will have a lasting impact, it’s worthwhile to consider other countries where masses of people succeeded in nonviolently bringing about a high degree of democracy and economic justice. Sweden and Norway, for example, both experienced a major power shift in the 1930s after prolonged nonviolent struggle. They “fired” the top 1 percent of people who set the direction for society and created the basis for something different.
Both countries had a history of horrendous poverty. When the 1 percent was in charge, hundreds of thousands of people emigrated to avoid starvation. Under the leadership of the working class, however, both countries built robust and successful economies that nearly eliminated poverty, expanded free university education, abolished slums, provided excellent health care available to all as a matter of right and created a system of full employment. Unlike the Norwegians, the Swedes didn’t find oil, but that didn’t stop them from building what the latest CIA World Factbook calls “an enviable standard of living.”
Neither country is a utopia, as readers of the crime novels by Stieg Larsson, Kurt Wallender and Jo Nesbo will know. Critical left-wing authors such as these try to push Sweden and Norway to continue on the path toward more fully just societies. However, as an American activist who first encountered Norway as a student in 1959 and learned some of its language and culture, the achievements I found amazed me. I remember, for example, bicycling for hours through a small industrial city, looking in vain for substandard housing. Sometimes resisting the evidence of my eyes, I made up stories that “accounted for” the differences I saw: “small country,” “homogeneous,” “a value consensus.” I finally gave up imposing my frameworks on these countries and learned the real reason: their own histories.
Then I began to learn that the Swedes and Norwegians paid a price for their standards of living through nonviolent struggle. There was a time when Scandinavian workers didn’t expect that the electoral arena could deliver the change they believed in. They realized that, with the 1 percent in charge, electoral “democracy” was stacked against them, so nonviolent direct action was needed to exert the power for change.
In both countries, the troops were called out to defend the 1 percent; people died. Award-winning Swedish filmmaker Bo Widerberg told the Swedish story vividly in Ådalen 31, which depicts the strikers killed in 1931 and the sparking of a nationwide general strike. (You can read more about this case in an entry by Max Rennebohm in the Global Nonviolent Action Database.)
The Norwegians had a harder time organizing a cohesive people’s movement because Norway’s small population—about three million—was spread out over a territory the size of Britain. People were divided by mountains and fjords, and they spoke regional dialects in isolated valleys. In the nineteenth century, Norway was ruled by Denmark and then by Sweden; in the context of Europe Norwegians were the “country rubes,” of little consequence. Not until 1905 did Norway finally become independent.
When workers formed unions in the early 1900s, they generally turned to Marxism, organizing for revolution as well as immediate gains. They were overjoyed by the overthrow of the czar in Russia, and the Norwegian Labor Party joined the Communist International organized by Lenin. Labor didn’t stay long, however. One way in which most Norwegians parted ways with Leninist strategy was on the role of violence: Norwegians wanted to win their revolution through collective nonviolent struggle, along with establishing co-ops and using the electoral arena.