George Lakey on Capitalism, public health and the Nordic model // In one stunning sentence, Noam Chomsky nails the most overlooked element of the pandemic
In one stunning sentence, Noam Chomsky nails the most overlooked element of the pandemic The coronavirus is serious enough, but it’s worth recalling that there’s a much greater horror approaching. We are racing to the edge of disaster, far worse than anything that’s happened in human history... there are two immense threats that we’re facing. One is the growing threat of nuclear war… the other, of course, is the growing threat of global warming. Both threats can be dealt [with], but there isn’t a lot of time. Chomsky pressed “If we don’t deal with them, we’re done”.
Vision now threatens the U.S. political center
Establishment political leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, are in trouble. The past four years have not been kind to them, and not only because of the uncontrollable Trump. In 2016 Bernie Sanders emerged from the margins to gain political traction with bold alternatives. He proudly identified as a democratic socialist. He couldn’t be dismissed as an irrelevant left ideologue because he used the Nordic model as a vision-turned-practical, a brilliant success in the real world.
Even in ordinary times, the Nordic region is where you’ll find the best countries for women, for elders, for raising children, for equality, for environmental performance and even for individual freedom. Black Americans settling down in Oslo even find relief from most of the racism they encounter in the United States. In all these ways and others, the Nordic countries far out-rank the United States — which is why this country is now rated as a “flawed democracy.”
For decades the American establishment counted on a simple strategy: ignore them! Academia used to conform. While criss-crossing the United States on book tours I’ve asked economics majors, both undergrads and graduate students, what they were being taught about the Nordic model. The answer was almost always “nothing.” “Not even in comparative economics?” I asked. “No, why should we learn about what they do in Scandinavia?”
I offered a hint. “Because it’s the most successful economic model yet invented.” Happily, the academic abdication is changing. I’m getting invitations from colleges and universities — even a business school — to describe the Nordic model. Bucknell University gathered all its Econ 101 students in an auditorium for the purpose, where I met wide-awake students full of questions.
Alert to how dangerously attractive the Nordics are becoming to Americans, establishment writers like David Brooks, Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Friedman are coming to the rescue. Some use the rhetorical device reminiscent of George Orwell’s “1984,” in which a banner proclaims: “War is peace.” Or, as Anu Partanen and Trevor Corson put it in the New York Times: “Finland Is a Capitalist Paradise.”
What they do have in common, with some individual differences, is their economic model. Actually, oil doesn’t account for even Norway’s main achievements. The North Sea oil didn’t come on line until the 1970s, and Norway pretty much got rid of poverty before that time — as did their Nordic cousins.The Norwegian oil story does tip us off, however, to how mistaken it is to call these countries “capitalist.” When the oil was discovered the people had a national debate: who will own it, and how will it be handled?
In his New York Times column “This is How the Scandinavians Got Great,” David Brooks attributes Nordic achievement to the evolution of their education system. As he says, in mid-19th century Denmark the folk high school movement began to make a powerful and lasting impact. The masses of Danes after World War I launched a nonviolent struggle for economic justice, and then in 1924 became the first of the Nordic peoples to elect a social democratic prime minister
A bigger problem for Brooks is trying to link the new education to the building of “social trust.” True, today the Nordic peoples exhibit enormous trust in their governments and other institutions. That trust pays off in addressing emergencies like the coronavirus. Also true is that the education movement helped ordinary people build trust in each other, hence the coop movement. Brooks clearly wants education to be able to play that role, given his alarm about Americans’ present lack of trust in the U.S. establishment. He seems to hope that, if the battered and starved U.S. educational system could somehow flourish once again, maybe we Americans, too, could trust each other and our institutions — and obtain the rewards of the Danish system!
The crisis returned Sweden and Norway to their senses. Because their basic social democratic model was still intact, their governments could seize the largest banks, fire the senior management, make sure the shareholders didn’t get a krona and restore the previous regime of heavy regulation.
In the next part of this series I’ll respond to more writers in the mainstream media who mis-characterize the Nordic model. There’s a reason to counter their effort to co-opt the most attractive vision we have. The reason lies in how we win. Successful movements lift up a vision of change that we can describe in common-sense terms. A vision supports us to move from protest to change, from reacting to going on the offensive. A vision enables us to reach the scale we need to win. It inspires people to sacrifice and transform their anger into a positive spirit that moves others to join.
American capitalism has dropped the mask — and its face is cruel and selfish