Matt Bruenig: Nordic Socialism Is Realer Than You Think

By Matt Bruenig, who writes about politics, the economy, and political theory, with a focus on issues that affect poor and working people. He has written for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The American Prospect, In These Times, Jacobin, Dissent, Salon, The Week, Gawker and at his home base of sorts: Demos’ Policy Shop. Follow him on Twitter: @mattbruenig. Originally published at his website

This post was originally intended for the launch of the People’s Policy Project website. But as that is running behind schedule, I figure I will post it here.

When policy commentators talk about the Nordic economies, they tend to focus on their comprehensive welfare states. And for good reason. Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden are home to some of the most generous welfare systems in the world. Each has an efficient single-payer health care system, free college, long parental leave, heavily subsidized child care, and many other social benefits too numerous to list here.

As marvelous as the Nordic welfare states are, the outsized attention they receive can sometimes lead commentators to the wrong conclusions about the peculiarities of Nordic economies. Jonathan Chait thinks the Nordic economies feature an “amped-up version of … neoliberalism” while an oddly large number of conservative and libertarian writers claim the Nordics are quasi-libertarian.

The common thread to these mistaken conclusions, aside from the desire to deny that there are leftist success stories in the world, is the apparent belief that the only extraordinary part of Nordic economies are the welfare states. Except for their generous social benefits, everything else is properly capitalist and even more capitalist than the United States. Or so the argument goes.

Labor Market

But this is not true. In addition to their large welfare states and high tax levels, Nordic economies are also home to large public sectors, strong job protections, and labor markets governed by centralized union contracts.

Around 1 in 3 workers in Denmark and Norway are employed by the government.

Centrally-bargained union contracts establish the work rules and pay scales for the vast majority of Nordic workers.

These labor market characteristics are hardly neoliberal or quasi-libertarian, at least if we stick to typical definitions of those terms. The neoliberal tendency, as exemplified most recently by France’s Emmanuel Macron, is to cut public sector jobs, reduce job protections, and push for local rather than centralized labor agreements. For the US labor market to become more like the Nordics, it would have to move in the opposite direction on all of those fronts.

State Ownership

Even more interesting than Nordic labor market institutions is Nordic state ownership. Collective ownership over capital is the hallmark of that old-school socialism that is supposed to have been entirely discredited. And yet, such public ownership figures prominently in present-day Norway and Finland and has had a role in the other two Nordic countries as well, especially in Sweden where the government embarked upon a now-defunct plan to socialize the whole of Swedish industry into wage-earner funds just a few decades ago.

The governments of Norway and Finland own financial assets equal to 330 percent and 130 percent of each country’s respective GDP. In the US, the same figure is just 26 percent.

Much of this money is tied up in diversified wealth funds, which some would object to as not counting as real state ownership. I disagree with the claim that wealth funds are not really state ownership, but the observation that Nordic countries feature high levels of state ownership does not turn upon this quibble.

State-owned enterprises (SOEs), defined as commercial enterprises in which the state has a controlling stake or large minority stake, are also far more prevalent in the Nordic countries. In 2012, the value of Norwegian SOEs was equal to 87.9 percent of the country’s GDP. For Finland, that figure was 52.3 percent. In the US, it was not even 1 percent.

Some of these SOEs are businesses often run by states: a postal service, a public broadcasting channel, an Alcohol retail monopoly. But others are just normal businesses typically associated with the private sector.

In Finland, where I know the situation the best, there are 64 state-owned enterprises, including one called Solidium that operates as a holding company for the government’s minority stake in 13 of the companies.

The Finnish state-owned enterprises include an airliner called Finnair; a wine and spirits maker called Altia; a marketing communications company called Nordic Morning; a large construction and engineering company called VR; and an $8.8 billion oil company called Neste.

In Norway, the state manages direct ownership of 70 companies. The businesses include the real estate company Entra; the country’s largest financial services group DNB; the 30,000-employee mobile telecommunications company Telenor; and the famous state-owned oil company Statoil.

Finland and Norway have their special reasons for the level of state ownership they engage in. Finnish government publications discuss the country’s late development and status as a peripheral country when justifying their relatively heavy public involvement in industry. That is, Finland does not want to expose the entirety of its marginal, late-developing, open economy to the potential ravages of international capital flows.

In Norway, the discovery of oil in the North Sea was the impetus for the creation of its enormous social wealth fund. The fund currently owns around $950 billion of assets throughout the world, including more than $325 billion of assets inside the US. In a video on the Norwegian central bank’s website, the fund is described as follows: “It is the people’s money, owned by everyone, divided equally and for generations to come.”

No one would argue that the Nordic countries are full-blown socialist countries, whatever that might mean. But it is also folly to pretend the only thing they have proven is that high taxes and large welfare states can work. Even on the narrow understanding of socialism as public ownership of enterprise, the Nordic countries are far more socialistic than most commentators seem to realize. American socialists who draw inspiration from their successes do so rightly.

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  1. Livius Drusus

    Great post. It is a shame that the left rarely talks about things like public ownership and the importance of centrally-bargained union contracts. These policies are usually classified as dinosaurs from another era much like economic planning, another concept that used to be a strong part of the left’s policy arsenal but rarely gets talked about these days.

    This shows you how successful the neoliberal TINA project has been in shifting the narrative to the right. Nowadays the hottest policy prescription on the left is the basic income guarantee, a neoliberal idea popularized by right-wingers like Milton Friedman and Charles Murray. This reveals the truly sad state of the contemporary left.

    1. Hiho

      I found really interesting your comment on the basic income. Now for example, it is being purposed in Spain even by the far-right “ciudadanos” party.

      Left parties have become ideologically inarticulated. New-labour and stupid identity politics have turned them into empty shells. Their leaders mediocre and complacent, their voters ignorant and scared…

      And day after day the window of acceptable political thought moves further to the right. Gosh, there are people that even think bernie sanders is a socialist! Then what would Eisenhower be?

      1. makedoanmend

        What role does the ownership of nearly all media outlets across the West by the wealthy play on the availability of thoughts, ideas and information form Leftist writers? I can’t think of one hard core “Leftist” writer who has regular columns or appearances in English speaking main stream media. George Monbiot comes closest, imo, of any writer who has an non-neoliberal agenda that gets airing, but one is often confronted by articles in the Guardian on the same day which seek to “decompress” Monbiot’s messages with either contradictory or obfuscatory articles in opposition to his sentiments.

        1. Hiho

          That is indeed true. Genuine leftists do not have acces to msm and therefore their voices die in the void. This is the logical and unavoidable consequence of the current concentracion in media ownership (as you said).

          Hard times indeed.

          1. Alex Morfesis

            Why would anyone want “access” to the kneelson faked ratings system…the capital and advertising markets have given the heaveho to that “coronation” process and this msm you describe died with craigslist…first travel and then real estate and soon grocery stores, car dealers and retail will take another path…

            the bridge is out at the end of that road…sooner rather than later the asphalt will turn to gravel and then back to dust…

            The problem is not access to media no one reads anymore…

            There are plenty of outlets for creation of what would be better called “collective capitalism”…

            Starting a co-op is not some massive undertaking…

            it is just a few folks at a coffee shop deciding to form a co-op entity…

            it does not have to have some magical “business plan” tied to it or some “funding”…

            A weeks worth of ciggies from five people will get the carcass of the entity going…

            Action creates results…

            fix it later…

            1. TedHunter

              The problem is not access to media no one reads anymore…

              There are plenty of outlets for creation of what would be better called “collective capitalism”…

              Action creates results

              Correct. There’s nothing more to be said.

          1. Stephen Gardner

            As a 63yo I can assure you that I move further to the left with every breath.

    2. Marco

      It’s hard not to blame worker distrust in union leadership when you have UAW Vice President General Holiefield caught in bribery scandal that most likely tainted contacts for Fiat-Chrysler workers. The noeliberal rot extends deep.

      1. Livius Drusus

        Yeah union corruption is bad and hurts the image of unions. But I think it is wrong that people tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to corruption and unions. All human organizations have problems with corruption but it seems like unions are the only organizations that we are supposed to completely shun due to problems with corruption.

        I rarely see people apply this same exacting standard to business organizations, churches, schools, police departments, etc. Corruption in other organizations is explained away as “a few bad apples” but when a scandal breaks involving unions you get people saying that we should get rid of unions, all unions are like that, etc. It shows how effectively capitalist propaganda has worked on this issue.

        1. jrs

          “All human organizations have problems with corruption but it seems like unions are the only organizations that we are supposed to completely shun due to problems with corruption.”

          + 1000

          it may be mostly propaganda but maybe people became more biased against unions: 1) because those represented by them may interact with the union more directly than they do other institutions. For instance the company board might be horribly corrupt, but how many employees ever interact with that? 2) because as union members the union is supposed to represent them, so when it doesn’t (when they sell out the rank and file) it’s glaring, and maybe people don’t EVEN expect representation in many other institutions sad to say.

          I am somewhat baffled by the degree to which unions are held to a purity standard other things aren’t as well.

          1. Livius Drusus

            I think you make a good point re: expectations about unions. In a way it should be a badge of honor that unions are held to such a high standard because they are supposed to interact with their members and serve them loyally and zealously so when union scandals break it is seen as especially reprehensible. In a way it is similar to the reactions people have to scandals involving churches.

            People often shrug off corporate corruption because they expect business owners to be a little shady because they are in the “cutthroat world of business” and sometimes you have to do things that are a bit shady to beat out the competition. It reminds me of the attempt by Democrats to make a big deal about Donald Trump’s taxes. But people expect the rich to cheat on their taxes and many people wish they could too if they had the lawyers and accountants to do it.

          2. Left in Wisconsin

            Every poll shows that the vast majority of current union members like their union. That is why union decertifications are so rare. And this is despite the fact that union members can see up close the threat of corruption.

            The people who don’t like unions, for the most part, are people who are not in unions and have no idea how they really work (and don’t work). The two biggest criticisms of unions I hear are a) unions are too powerful or b) unions didn’t do enough to save (whatever) (plant, company, industry, whatever). When digging is done, it inevitably becomes clear that each claim is blatantly untrue, and in the bigger picture, fits as part of a larger narrative (something like: unions ruined/are ruining this country) that is also blatantly untrue.

            That said, I do not think either the 1% or the 20% is keen to see the kind of destabilization that would be experienced in any union effort to reinstall themselves as a powerful social force.

        2. Allegorio

          The reason that unions are despised is that the owner classes have Balkanized them into cliques of privileged workers rather than fighting for the rights of all workers. They have created a class of worker aristocrats with privileged salaries and benefits. This was the work of Samuel Gompers and the AFL, purging the leftists from their midst. Their leadership has been co-opted by the ruling class, doling out corruption and privileges to the select few. Until the labor movement becomes universalist and not just privileging the the select, mostly European, few, it will wither away as was intended by the owners. Why was Walker so successful going after the public service unions in Wisconsin? Because of the “I got mine” attitude by the union membership, screw every body else. Divide and rule, works every time. And what was the bait that caused the union movement to focus on particular rights and privileges for union members, it was racism, that handy tool of the owner classes.

      2. zapster

        In Denmark, unions are protected by the constitution. A business can do pretty much anything it wants to be competitive except violate a union contract, so they don’t even try. This leads to much less corruption and a great deal more cooperation.

        Our adversarial position on unions sets up the conditions that drive

        1. Michael Sjøberg

          ‘In Denmark, unions are protected by the constitution.’

          Nope…only the right to organize.

    3. jrs

      leftist do talk about those things, public banking, public ownership of energy etc.. Just there aren’t many people very left in the U.S.

      There are actually less people seriously proposing a basic income, pretending that this is an active issue that could come about rather than a mostly theoretical debate seems pointless especially for the U.S. (yes if we got one it would probably be puny and at the loss of all other social services, but that’s because the U.S. does not really believe in any such thing). Yes sometimes some random tech titan or something decides to spout out about basic income but it makes very little sense to call this left.

      Of course the appeal of basic income to working people is some of them have never had a good job in their lives. The experience of work is probably different in the Nordic countries too, in hours, in job security, and because of all these protections etc. the actual experience of working (possibly less competitive, more amiable, less powerless etc.). But it’s beyond the ken of the American worker to know anyway.

    4. Science Officer Smirnoff

      To start closer to the beginning here is Joe Mazor’s (2009) Harvard dissertation on the disposition of natural resources (from the abstract):

      I develop a liberal theory of natural resource property rights which is founded on the equality of natural resource claims, which advocates for equal division of natural resources, and which considers how the principle of equal division can be justly implemented.

      I begin by defending the equality of natural resource claims. I argue that people should be seen as having equal claims to the pristine natural resources that remain after all those who contributed to the value of these resources have been appropriately compensated. And since the value of these remaining natural resources is not generated by anyone’s labor, I contend that libertarians ought to endorse equal claims to these resources. I argue that liberal egalitarians have good reasons to endorse equality of natural resource claims as well.

      I then consider how equal claims to natural resources should be respected. I develop criteria for evaluating conceptions of equal claims and use these criteria to dismiss Collective Ownership, First Possession Appropriation, Common Access, and iii Harmless Appropriation conceptions. Instead, I defend an Equal Division conception which grants each person an equal amount of natural resources.

      Finally, I consider how the principle of equal division should work in practice. I engage with the problems of heterogeneity, unexpected change, future people and multiple nation-states. I propose a system of leases of varying lengths with the rents to be distributed equally. Furthermore, I draw the following conclusions:

      1) Certain decisions regarding non-separable resources such as the air should be made collectively.

      2) We have obligations to each other to conserve for future people.

      3) Natural resources are uniquely subject to international redistribution because they are both individually and nationally undeserved.

      4) Preventing the appropriation of the Arctic seabed by particular nations is feasible step towards achieving a more just global distribution of natural resource property rights.

      1. bdy

        Thomas Payne redux. His similar argument was a central part of the war drums in our tax revolt against the throne. From it, Payne developed the ideas of property tax and, drumroll, a kind of basic income guarantee.

        Notice how quick the founding fathers were to marginalize the guy once the shooting stopped.

        Aside: I wish scholars (especially heterodox scholars) would reference their historical precedents more frequently. Are they worried their ideas will appear anachronistic, or is it just a reluctance to share credit? Is there any love out there for the Chartalists from the MMT crowd?

        1. Science Officer Smirnoff

          Thomas Paine and a lot more!

          A Liberal Theory of Natural Resource Property Rights: J. Mazor pp 17-18

          So while (Adam) Smith never states explicitly that people have equal claims to land, it is clear that he does not support the existing landlords’ exclusive claim to it. His advocacy of a “peculiar tax” on land rents to be used for public purposes might plausibly be interpreted as an endorsement of the equal claims view.

          Thomas Paine is far more explicit than Smith is about his support for equal claims to natural resources. He writes in Agrarian Justice, “It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race.” He adds, “There could be no such thing as landed property originally.

          Deeper in the dissertation Mazor brings in the arguments of recent contributors.

          p 194

          Equal Division conceptions are endorsed by a variety of liberal thinkers including Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Paine, Hillel Steiner, Bruce Ackerman, and Ronald Dworkin. The common element among these conceptions is a commitment to granting each person some type of ownership rights over an equal share of natural resources or natural resource wealth.

          This can only be a tease.

          Mazor gives a great discussion of work over the last couple generations and found, for example, in Philosophy and Public Affairs.

      2. nonclassical

        …yes, and meanwhile rightwing push for “privatization” is currently extending to west coast “Bonneville hydropower”-electricity:

        “Nearly half of the nation’s hydropower electricity comes from more than 250 hydropower dams that were built on the Columbia and its tributaries — a vast and complex arc of industry and technology that touches tens of millions of lives across the West every day.”

  2. Moneta

    Apart from Sweden at around 10m, all the others have a population of less than 6m.

    On top of having smallish populations on limited land, these are quite homogenous.

    But with significant immigration they are starting to reel and protest, feeling like they are losing their identity.

    This analysis is looking at the past… chances are things will be quite different in a few decades.

    I’m not sure a country with a population of 300 million across a vast expanse of land with extreme divergent interests can be compared to these northern European countries.

    I think all the states would need to become quasi auto-reliant first… something that gets destroyed with m&a and the concept of economies of scale.

    The central bank is doing to the states what the eu is doing to Europe… favouring some regions over others with bad redistribution.

    1. mpalomar

      Agree that Nordic demographics are a factor but it is probably best to formulate policy on past experience. Discounting historical evidence and relying on theory and ideology based on little other than belief that it should be so is a recipe for disaster.

      The small, homogenous demographic nature of these countries is not a disqualifier only a qualifier. 7 billion + world population and large scale global migration initiated by imperial proxy war, economic disruption, resource theft and climate change suggests Nordic et. al. demographics will change; of course change is inevitable but not a reason to dismiss the available evidence.

      Can it be assumed from polities organized on a scale of the US let alone China and India that democracy, harmony and equality are not favored outcomes? Democracy’s recorded beginnings in Athens suggest small polities are favored circumstances. Concentrations of wealth and power in the US, partially a function of a large population, has likely destroyed democracy.

      1. Detroit Dan

        Well said.

        The argument that the U.S. cannot do what Finland does, for example, because we have black people (aka diversity) is somewhat racist, in my opinion. But it is also true that homogeneity is real, and does have real benefits in getting people to cooperate.

        And you’re absolutely right that we have to look at past experience for evidence as to what works and what doesn’t. So the fact that the Nordic countries have been successful with socialist policies and programs is extremely significant, in my opinion. The argument that we shouldn’t even try to achieve what has been shown to work elsewhere because we are diverse and big is defeatist. I’m willing to listen to alternative constructive suggestions, but the that fact socialism (unlike communism, for example) actually works well in the real world, in the present time, is hugely significant in my mind.

    2. Alex

      Sweden actually has a slightly less homogeneous population than the US, if you look at those classified as very recent immigrants, with almost 14% foreign born, vs 13% in the US:

      The idea that Sweden is just filled with white people and therefore socialism works better for that reason is what I would classify as a “Big Lie” that has merely been repeated enough to make it assumed to be true. There are of course integration and other problems related to this immigration, but doesn’t the US have similar issues that it hasn’t resolved even though it is a country of basically only immigrants?

      Also, what does “limited land” mean? Sweden has 22 people per square km vs 33 for the US…..

      1. Moneta

        You really want to compare the American melting pot to Sweden’s Scandinavian heritage?

        Immigration is a novelty which has yet to show up in policy.

        1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

          And precisely how would immigration “show up” in relevant policy that is substantively different to policy in the US (denying immigrants social welfare for example)?

          This is about the age-old seesaw between Labor and Capital, nothing more or less. The US has pegged the needle to Capital, it even allows one person to become the richest man on Earth by building a monopoly that bankrupts large swathes of local middle-class businesses and then pays almost no taxes by keeping “profit” to a minimum. Workers, of course, must face the industrial might of behemoth employers alone, it’s unthinkable they would be allowed to organize and bargain collectively. The “greater good” be damned, it’s every man for himself in the bloody race to the Hunger Games capitol city, the 1% do spectacularly well not despite the competition of the 99% but because the 99% cannot possibly get a run up the tilted playing field.

      2. artiste-de-decrottage

        Right on. The argument that, you see, “US is not Denmark”, as a well-known failed politician has remarked, is just so bogus – it helps no one and it just shuts down a real conversation about what is possible and about the real reasons for the differences.

      3. Allegorio

        Likewise the brutal suppression of the left by the ruling classes since World War I. We would be a socialist country now if Eugene Debs wasn’t jailed, if Emma Goldman and a host of other leftists deported and jailed. If the Knights of Labor hadn’t been destroyed by the Catholic Church. If the Sedition Act hadn’t made it a crime to be socialist. What was the McCarthy era all about, “Are you, or have you ever been a member of the communist party” There has been a wholesale violent suppression of the Left in the US and worldwide and it is still going on. How much air time did “socialist” Bernie Sanders get? The FBI is now going after his wife. How can we forget J. Edgar Hoover? How much of Soviet repression was due to the never ending attempts to subvert the revolution in Russia by the Secret Services of Britain and the US.

        Joseph Goebbels, that avid disciple of Edward Bernays and Walter Lippman, “manufactured consensus” Lippman, is alive and well in the Big Lie US media. The school curriculum has been purged of all mention of competing economic systems and the never ending brain washing have turned the American public in into knee jerk fascists. Red diaper babies betraying the principles of their parents in an orgy of tribalism.

        No discussion of Socialism can ignore the brutal suppression of the Left here and in the world over.

    3. Notorious P.A.T.

      Well, Germany’s population is 85 million, and they are almost as socialized as the Nordic countries. In fact, Germany will give free college to anyone, citizen or not. And this despite reforming from East and West Germany just a couple decades ago.

        1. justanotherprogressive

          Well, the US was once a net exporter too…….and why did that change?

        2. Carla

          Yes. And as I understand it, Germans are willing to pay more for German-made products, and regularly do.

        3. Detroit Dan

          Moneta– You’ve just changed your argument from one of fundamentals (the U.S. is big and diverse, therefore we can’t be effectively socialist like the Nordic countries) to a rather specific economic fact (unlike US, Germany = net exporter). I agree that the U.S. being a net exporter is significant, but isn’t that something that can be managed? In other words, the U.S. can, like the Germany and other net exporters throughout history, manage the economy to encourage exports and discourage excessive imports. If this is all that is needed to make socialism viable, I don’t see that as being a big obstacle.

          1. Moneta

            I believe there is a link between well functioning socialism and a healthy economy so net exporters would have an advantage.

            Consistently net importing means a country is using its currency to finance the gap which would logically lead to a deterioration of the economy over the long-term. Hard to see national sharing with monetary manipulation and/or deterioration of the economy.

            It’s hard for me to see the US becoming a consistent net exporter while having the reserve currency so I have trouble seeing socialist policies getting implemented.

            I would argue that many small countries can have socialism because of the global monetary order where the US has the reserve currency. Change the balance of trade and those countries’ socialist policies can become unworkable.

            On a more fundamental point… socialism can be important for a small country… unite to beat or protect yourself from the gorilla. The US has no need for this.

            And for socialism to work well, the nation has to be cohesive and believe they are moving together… how can Americans feel cohesive when one state needs to steal water and resources from another state to thrive?

            Here in Canada, the first element is there but we are having trouble with social cohesiveness… for example, Alberta feels like it is funding Quebec’s daycare system. Luckily, important socialist policies were implemented when there was more cohesiveness and communal feelings in the 60s.

            I don’t see mush socialism in the US until interests are more aligned…

            1. Stephen Gardner

              The neoliberal project has put a high priority on dissolving social cohesiveness. So of course we lack cohesiveness. But as people begin to understand the program they will see we have to change and realize how important solidarity is in the struggle against the wealthy stealing from the rest of us.

            2. Allegorio

              “On a more fundamental point… socialism can be important for a small country… unite to beat or protect yourself from the gorilla. The US has no need for this.” @ Moneta

              What, there are no “gorillas” internal to the “big” country? Do workers not need to be protected from the banking cartel in “big” countries? Are there not internal colonies in “big” countries? Do people not need protection from rentier exploitation and monopolies in “big” countries? Does not democracy need protection from the corporate state in “big” countries?

              Your definition of need is peculiar indeed.

            3. JCC

              “On a more fundamental point… socialism can be important for a small country… unite to beat or protect yourself from the gorilla. The US has no need for this.”

              A better way to put the above statement would be to say “… unite to beat or protect yourself from the gorilla. The US elite has no need for this.

              Which, of course, is the very severe and serious problem with US-style Capitalism.

    4. bdy

      Please explain why socialism works at pop. 10m and not at pop. 10b.

      I have looked for a reasonable explanation why “welfare states only work in smaller, relatively isolated countries” since I first heard it at age 8 or 9. So far the most convincing things I’ve found are libertarian platitudes or “just look at the Soviets” in one form or another

      I would think any arguments about scale would lose their teeth once you had decent outcomes in a society that was large enough where one person couldn’t know everybody else, maybe 10 thousand.

      If you want to argue it’s a matter of complexity, I would counter that simple taxation and delivery systems scale out easily. A steep progressive income tax and social benefits detached from any means testing or ID verification will garner a lot more traction than being a smaller state.

      If it’s a “well folks just won’t get along in a melting pot, so they have to compete,” I would say look for prejudices of your own but trust your neighbor to recognize that cooperative effort will get us somewhere, even if some of us dislike one another.

      1. justanotherprogressive

        As a student of history, I’ve found that any form of government where those who have power are willing to share that power to meet the needs of the people seems to work – but those governments where power gets concentrated and is used only to benefit those in power always fail.

        I’m reminded of how the Magna Carta saved King John’s monarchy and how King Louis XVI’s refusal to share power with the Estates General destroyed his…..

        1. Terry Flynn

          Agreed. To come at it from the “other direction” – it’s been known since biblical times (and from proper academic sources, not just the fluff in the Old Testament) that debt jubilees were essential for the leaders not to get their heads chopped off following the inevitable concentration of wealth among the ‘rentiers’ – those who just own the land etc – under unbridled capitalism and the inevitable revolts by the peasants who ended up in debt servitude. So unbridled capitalism caused clever leaders to create an ‘escape valve’ (every 7 years) if they were to remain in power.

          I’m less sure about socialism in large populations – I think when the right ‘escape valves’ are there to correct inequities/weird distributions that emerge, then it, too, can be sustained. But what are the ‘escape valves’? In the Nordic countries there is a lot of competition at local levels, so people retain some notion of “the possibility of moving up the ladder” if they show particular valued skills. But, like justanotherprogressive says, this has to be recognised, built into the system, and recognised by all, including (and particularly by) the elites. Maybe larger populations are more likely to lead to ‘ossification’ among elites which causes discontent among the wider population.

          1. Allegorio

            It is important to note, how debt relief has been a major factor in all the great revolutions of the modern era, the American, the French, the Russian, and soon the second American. The French revolution happened after John Law’s South Sea Island Swindle. Unsustainable debt played an important role in the Russian Revolution.

            If it wasn’t for the Liar in Chief, Barack Obama, there’d have been a revolution after the Mortgage rip off of 2008. In fact, there has been a revolution on the right, most of Republican Congress Critters who voted for the bail out of Wall Street have been primaried out of office.

            It is the gullible left that has been seduced by identity & sexual politics, the entertainment industry, trans bathrooms, their college elitism, their iPhones and techno babble into being passive fodder for the corporate state, even as the state subverts their real rights to democracy. Occupy Wall Street, violently repressed by the Obamanator would have been a good start. Those who have been deprived of their history are doomed to repeat it.

            Der Donald is doing a lot to dispel the myth of the “worthy” billionaire. I think Der Drumpf is doing more to promote the “revolution” than all the sellouts of the Left ever will.

      2. Moneta

        Humans are communal but when the community gets too big things break down. Particularly when the interests are divergent.

        When the community gets too large, someone’s gain becomes someone’s sacrifice and most will sacrifice for their offspring but not necessarily for the offspring of those they have never met. And this gets amplified when fairness can not be measured, which become insidious in a large complex society with large wealth discrepancies.

        1. Detroit Dan

          @Moneta– But you didn’t answer bdy’s specific question as to “why socialism works at pop. 10m and not at pop. 10b”. Presumably you think 10b is really big, but 10m is not, but that’s a pretty weak thread, in my opinion. 10m seems big to me with regard to “sacrifice for the offspring of those they have never met”, for example. No doubt there is some validity to what you say, but the Nordic and German examples seem to say that the problems you cite can be overcome.

          I’ve been reading Branko Milanović’s work on global inequality (see and he addresses the issues you raise, but in a much more detailed fashion, checking the theoretical tradeoffs against the historical experiences.

  3. Rob

    You progs kill me. Of course socialism can work in a cohesive high trust society such as the Nordic countries. Look for that to quickly change, though, as large numbers of low trust immigrants are admitted testing the carrying capacity of social defectors. Love the site, btw.

    1. a different chris

      Sigh. Let me fix that for you:

      “Socialism works to make a cohesive high trust society such as it did with the Nordic countries”.

    2. tegnost

      feature not bug, the immigrants that you refer to didn’t just up and decide to leave home, a disruption with the purpose of pushing populations to other parts of the globe via first central americans then into these war on terra years where mideast populations lands are being purposefully destroyed and now they are on the run. Stop for a second and ask yourself who made them run? The same scoundrels who used central american war refugees to reduce union and worker quality of life are now at it in spades in the eurozone. Policy choices with stark outcomes. Funny how the war refugees are low trust when in reality it’s the elite that are rapacious and untrustworthy….adding that the only thing it’s wise to trust someone to be is themselves…

    3. Notorious P.A.T.

      You don’t know as much as you think, I’m afraid. Virtually every industrialized country in the world is much more socialized than the USA, and most of them have comparable levels of immigration and racial variety. Take Canada, for example, or Australia or England.

  4. JEHR

    I am truly amazed that Canada has retained as much social democracy as it has in spite of being so close to the US. There is quite a long list of publicly owned companies in Canada called Crown Corporations which can be either federal or provincial. We lost our Air Canada and Petro Canada as crown corporations. Ontario is selling off hydro utilities to raise money to create other infrastructure and hydro rates have risen dramatically. At one time we could have had our own Aviation Industry (Avro Arrow) except for the advent of nuclear missiles.

    1. Moneta

      IMO, without socialism, Canada would cease to exist. Capitalism leads to north-south trade to the detriment of East-West cooperation. Pushed to the extreme, that would lead to annexation.

    2. Mel

      Canada is not quite as rich a country. You can’t cover up defective institutions so well with whatever leftovers and spare change might be available.

      1. JEHR

        Mel, it depends on what you mean by “rich.” If you think mountains of money from exploiting the environment makes a country rich, then our 1% has that (and dodges taxes to boot). But we also have a progressive income tax which somewhat redistributes to those who are not rich. If you mean rich in what matters most: a caring government that tries to help even those on the lower rungs of society, then we are very rich indeed. If you mean rich in forests, water, ocean and sky, then we are the richest of all. What is needed, is more care for those riches and more care for all the people who are going to benefit from those riches. There is no need to have the most exports or the most money when you have these other “riches.”

        1. Ian

          It got a lot less caring and fundamentaly damaged when Harper got in. Sadly Trudeau is exactly what I expected him to be, and has kept quite a bit of Harper’s changes and is moving forward with the Neolib agenda. Still I look at the US and I thank the Universe that I am not down in that POS Country, rundown and looted almost solely for the benefit of rich POS’s at the expense of everbody else. (please forgive the generalizations and the classification of the US as a POS country for those many decent Americans who genuinely love their Country and hate what is being done to it). When all is said and done, we have it very good in Canada as a very high ranking good standard of living in contrast.

    3. Altandmain

      All of that is under siege these days in Canada.

      The same could be said about the Nordic nations too. They are under siege from neoliberalism.

      Australia and New Zealand are also more egalitarian nations that are under siege.

  5. Moneta

    The thing is that the article did not look at why socialism actually works in those countries.

    Many of the variables that make socialism work in these countries do not exist in the US unless you break up the country by region.

    The royalty in these countries use public transportation and bike… the US is so far from this mentality it is not funny!

    1. johnnygl

      You seem to see socialism as a RESULT of a confluence of positive factors in a given society and you aren’t looking at the results that come FROM socialist projects.

      Pretty much every socialist-y project that’s been done in the usa has become a success and has tightened the bonds of society. This is true of the post office, the interstate highway system, social security, and medicare. All of these things are hugely popular, more effective, and cheaper than their privatized alternatives.

      It is true on a more local level, too. Municipally owned utilities are low cost and popular. They bring communities together and improve levels of trust.

      1. Moneta

        Aren’t all isms the result of some set of confluent factors?

        The question is what set of confluent factors does the US need to get socialist policies?

        1. nonclassical

          “confluent factors” such as “privatization”-private ownership-monopoly…

          “The Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 (PUHCA),[1] also known as the Wheeler-Rayburn Act, was a law that was passed by the United States Congress to facilitate regulation of electric utilities, by either limiting their operations to a single state, and thus subjecting them to effective state regulation, or forcing divestitures so that each became a single integrated system serving a limited geographic area. Another purpose of PUHCA was to keep utility holding companies that were engaged in regulated businesses from engaging in unregulated businesses.

          PUHCA was one of a number of trust-busting and securities regulation initiatives that were enacted in response to the government investigations of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression, which included the collapse of Samuel Insull’s public utility holding company empire. By 1932, the eight largest utility holding companies controlled 73 percent of the investor-owned electric industry.[2] Their complex, highly leveraged, corporate structures were very difficult for individual states to regulate.”

        2. Detroit Dan

          “The question is what set of confluent factors does the US need to get socialist policies?” [Moneta]

          You and I and others can advocate for socialist policies, based upon their demonstrated efficacy elsewhere, instead of whining about how they’ll never work because some of them have not yet taken root in the U.S.

          Again, I agree with you that the U.S. faces unique challenges, but the current neoliberal approaches are obvious failures, so the time is ripe for change and we must look to other models that have demonstrated greater success.

          Unless you have some other suggestion?

          1. Moneta

            IMO, there has to be social cohesion for the acceptance of social policies.

            You have to start with social policies where everyone feels they are gaining. Good luck in today’s US!

            That’s probably why the going on the moon project worked… it united Americans without anyone feeling like someone was eating their lunch.

            1. Carla

              “You have to start with social policies where everyone feels they are gaining.”

              I think we are there, or very close to there, with universal health care.

              Thanks everyone, for this interesting discussion!

              1. JEHR

                When I watch US politicians talking about healthcare, I rarely see them standing up and saying that the best healthcare is the one that helps all citizens, not just those who have jobs, but every single American citizen. The politicians worry more about getting re-elected, or about destroying the opposing politicians, and about satisfying those insurance companies who lobby them and give them great mountains of money for winning each election if they do the lobbyists’ bidding. Only McCain showed some sympathy for those who are fighting for good healthcare and acted accordingly because he no longer has an election to lose; he is facing approaching poor health which makes the future very sharp and will sometimes bring out empathy for others who are ill.

                If elected politicians were just your ordinary people who cannot be lobbied, who truly cared about people, and who want to share a better life with others, you would have the foundation onto which you could build good democratic socialist policies.

                This attitude probably starts in kindergarten!

                1. Allegorio

                  “Only McCain showed some sympathy for those who are fighting for good healthcare and acted accordingly because he no longer has an election to lose” @JEHR

                  Don’t kid yourself, the ACA is not good healthcare. It is another corporate giveaway looting the Treasury. The Republicans never intended to repeal the ACA Republican Health Insurance plan that is destroying the economy. Wall Street and Big Pharma designed and want the ACA. John McCain saved the ACA for his Wall Street buddies precisely because he had nothing to lose and his Republican friends could virtue signal how they tried to repeal, meanwhile keeping intact a big giveaway to Wall Street.

        3. Allegorio

          “The question is what set of confluent factors does the US need to get socialist policies?” @ Moneta

          It needs war crimes tribunals, for both foreign and class wars. It needs a wealth tax to diminish the power of those sabotaging democracy in the US and above all it needs to restore democracy by removing “money as speech” and “corporations are people too”. This country would be socialist now if it wasn’t for the violent obstructions of the ruling class. It needs to try and jail its ruling class. In those cases I am all for asset forfeiture.

  6. Rosario

    The policies are all solid, how to get there is another story. The USA is a profoundly sick society and the amount of work to put it on track with anything resembling Nordic socialism will take generations (as it did in the Nordic countries). This requires a common sense of purpose and belonging built by supporting economic platforms of equality that allow people to feel they are in it together. This is something difficult to come by in a country that still revels in scapegoating groups of people for its problems (whether they be foreigners or flyover country citizens). In the USA, this is going to be a long, long game and patience will be the cardinal virtue. Bernie and his supporters have helped open up that path (again) recently, hopefully we will stay on it.

    1. Allegorio

      It is not the “sick” people of the United States that are preventing socializing the American economy, it is the “sick” owner class that is preventing it. On policy after policy the electorate support progressive social policy and wealth distributions. As the Gilens and Page study out of Princeton show, over and over again, it is not the policies that the electorate favor but the policies that the elites favor that get passed by Congress. Democracy has been overthrown by the corporate state.

      Senator Sanders is the most popular politician in the US, yet how much coverage do he and his policies get in the corporate media? The electoral process is strictly controlled by the ruling elites and is reflected in the regressive social policies enacted over and over again, by politicians like Obama and Trump who campaign on progressive platforms and then betray their supporters over and over again.

      It won’t take generations to institute social reform in this country, it will simply take prosecuting and jailing those who subvert our democracy. Put the fear of God into them for heaven’s sake, instead of false civility. You don’t hear the hard right babbling on about “civility” Millions are being murdered and being denied their social rights by clique of murderous psychopaths. So much for civility

  7. Chauncey Gardiner

    In contrast to the Scandinavian nations and far from being the land of opportunity, the infamous Great Gatsby Curve shows the US ranks first in income inequality and second in lack of generational mobility, just behind the UK among developed countries. And as has been made abundantly clear in government policy decisions ranging from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to fiscal austerity and monetary policies, to lack of criminal enforcement of securities, antirust and control fraud laws, to defunding public education, to privatization of publicly owned assets, it seems those in control of the system want to maintain things as they are.

    Ties into today’s NC article “Lack of Hope in America; The High Costs of Being Poor in a Rich Land”.

  8. Altandmain

    In regards to the comments about homogeneous societies, it is a contributing factor.

    Lesser homogeneous societies do seem to make people less charitable and more distrustful.

    It also affects Canada too:

    However this does not address the massive economic disparity in the US. The US could clearly do a lot better with a large number of State Owned Enterprises. In many cases they even outperform the private sector. It should be possible to have a society with state owned enterprises with diversity. Singapore is an example.

    There seems to be a breakdown of society in America. There is a transactional “me, me” mentality amongst the rich and an “I’ve got mine, screw you” way of thinking. I think that is one of the big reasons for the opposition to policies like universal healthcare. The phrase “why should I pay for other people’s healthcare” says a lot about the state of discourse in the US. Especially appalling is the rich who have stolen our lives and future to enrich themselves. They don’t have any interest in the public interest anymore. Inequality is the big driver, but I think that a case could be made that due to decreasing ethnic homogeneity, this has made a bad problem worse.

    That is not however a justification for racism. As a minority myself, the common minority working class citizens have more economic interests aligned with the working class whites than the rich. Class not race is the big divider. Economic despair is worsening this. As Glenn Greenwald once noted, economic despair feeds racism. It cannot be taken in isolation.

    I should also note that this is a great argument for opposing open borders and for restrictions on immigration (ex: a Canadian style points system and perhaps a quota). It is also a good reason to emphasize assimilation of immigrants as well.

    1. Allegorio

      Race has been used by the ruling class to divide and subvert solidarity among the working class for generations. Look at how the entertainment industry portrays, people of color, jive talking criminals drug addicts and degenerates. Gangster rap, over sexualized performers like Destiny’s Child and Beyonce eta alia. These are choices made by corporate executives not people of color used to fuel race bigotry. I am not advocating for censorship, just saying that these choices have the purpose of putting a wedge into working class solidarity and reflect the depravity of the ruling class. The majority of people of color are socially conservative church goers. Where is that depicted in the mass media?

      Look at the Jerry Springer show, the Maury Povitch show, mocking people of color and poor European Americans, likewise Judge Judy and her ilk. Dave Chappelle’s success was based on making fun of people of color for white audiences. I have nothing but respect for Dave Chappelle in that he realized what he was doing and denounced it. Again, don’t believe the bollucks about the American people rejecting progressive policies. Given a free and uncorrupted electoral system purged of the Debbie “Payday Loans” Wasserman Shultzes and triangulating Democrats this country would be a lot more progressive than it is

  9. irrational

    I have one problem with this article: Matt starts out comparing all four Nordics, but then only discusses government assets and SOEs in Finland and Norway.
    The situation in Denmark and Sweden is considerably different with at least the Danish state having privatised pretty much everything it could.
    That is not to deny that Denmark is relatively more socialist and welfare-statish than the US, but there are significant differences between the four countries and I would appreciate a more nuanced presentation.
    To add to the immigration debate, but from the reverse perspective (i.e. emigration): consensus on the Nordic model is ensured by those of us who don’t subscribe to high taxes to pay for gold-plated benefits for others leaving the country, i.e. there is a certain self-selection that ensures agreement on the national socio-politics.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      To be fair, I think the article is just a very general overview. But you are right that there are very strong differences between the countries and lots of subtleties. Just as one example, in Denmark there has been a fairly strong consensus among the left wing that the social welfare model was only sustainable if immigration was strongly restricted. Sweden has long had a much more open record and policy and sought integration instead, with mixed results (although generally better than is given credit for).

  10. witters

    “Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.”

    And isn’t she awful!

    But the Jagger songs are great.

  11. sokpaard

    Oxfam and a consulting outfit have just published a piece with data relevant for Bruenig’s article and this discussion: = The Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index = It’s billed as “A new global ranking of governments based on what they are doing to tackle the gap between rich and poor”. While the usual caveats about composite indices and statistical weaknesses should be born in mind, it’s useful all the same. Nordic policies, predictably, put Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland among the top ten globally. But so too do the policies of Belgium, Austria, Germany and France. Japan’s policies (despite un-progressive taxation) put it at the 11th position. URL:

  12. christine

    No one seems to have a clue how the Nordic countries became socialist. If the history is not understood, nothing is understood.

    These countries were such brutal nightmares that they were emptying out. See the movie Pelle the Conqueror. Read Scheidel’s The Great Leveler.

    It had to be very, very bad in the Nordic countries for socialism to finally be seen as a solution to destruction.

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