(This is the first of seven articles on the reality of Scandinavia’s “socialism”)
I first met Denmark’s last truly Social Democratic Prime Minister, Anker Joergensen in his state office, unannounced, in late 1980.
Grethe and I had just been married. We had met the year before in Los Angeles where I had been a “participatory journalist”, and activist for social/racial/gender equality and against the Vietnam War. I wanted to start a new life with Grethe in her peaceful, social democratic land.
I took odd jobs and did freelance writing for some Danish media, and for progressive media in the US and England. As such, I often walked from Grethe’s centrally located Copenhagen apartment to Christiansborg. The palace is the only building in the world that houses all government branches. The royal palace stood beside the seat of economic power, Denmark’s Stock Exchange (Boersen).
Sometimes I covered official politics from my “palace playground”, as my new wife quipped. The six-story building is a labyrinth of hard wooden stairs, long hallways and hundreds of offices. On my second trip inside, I ambled about unable to find the stairs that led directly to the balcony reserved for journalists covering the parliament. There were no guards and no signs on most doors. I stopped before a high door and turned the bronze polished handle. A small man sat behind a large desk. He turned about to look at me, a smile on his face. I flushed and spurted an apology for disturbing what I realized was the nation’s political leader.
“That’s quite alright. No problem,” replied the prime minister unperturbed. His face wrinkled cozily through a black-white mustache and goatee. Thinning black hair was brushed back revealing a partially bald scalp. No guards or assistants appeared as I quietly closed the big door.
Later in the 1980s, I spoke a few times with the unassuming man when he was no longer prime minister yet still the Social Democratic (SD) party leader. We attended Danish union meetings with delegates from unions in Central America, men and women under threat by death squads working with the CIA and US military “advisors” backing murderous dictatorial regimes. In 1985, I again met Anker, as he was known by all, standing beside his old-fashioned, gearless bicycle in the dead of winter. I asked him, as I had Palme, if he would be on standby if we had use for his political influence during the Central American peace-solidarity march. Anker readily agreed, and he did act when our marcher in El Salvador got arrested.
Anker started his working life as a bicycle messenger, then as an unskilled warehouse worker. He quickly was made a shop steward and worked his way up the union ladder. In the 1960s, he actively opposed the US war against Vietnam. Anker participated in Danish sessions of the Russell-Sartre Tribunal, in 1968. He was a supporter of the oppressed in many parts of the world, and of the 1968 Danish student uproar. It was therefore with sadness for many on the left and the more militant class-conscious workers that he decided to support Denmark’s admission to the EU, then called the EF, in 1972. Anker often found himself in the middle of political controversies.
During his two terms as Prime Minister, 1972-82 (minus 1973-5), he extended the social welfare system, the last state leader to do so. He got the pre-retirement benefits law passed, (at 62 years instead of waiting for old age pension at 67); increased paid vacations to five weeks for everyone; guaranteed pay raises for public employees; guaranteed social assistance, and more.
In Anker’s time, Denmark was known abroad as a tolerant, peaceful, civil liberties/freedom-loving land. Its foreign policy was based on peace. Anker supported the so-called “footnote” foreign policy (1982-8) when Denmark opposed placing NATO nuclear missiles in Europe. The anti-war movement had already convinced the Establishment not to allow NATO military exercises and atomic weapons on its territory. There were several serious confrontations between the US and Denmark because of this.
Anker died peacefully, March 20, 2016, at 93. A people’s man, he lived all his adult life, until he entered a senior’s home, in a modest apartment in a working-class district of the capital city.
Denmark was a vanguard country in sexual freedom and gender equality. Brothels were legal as far back as in the 1870s. For some of 1900s sex for sale was illegal but allowed. Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize pornography, July 1969. Freetown Christiania is a major tourist attraction. It belonged to the military when, on September 4, 1971, the abandoned military area of 34 hectares was occupied by neighbors who broke down the fence. They set up living quarters in abandoned barracks and some built their own housing. Youth House was a legal underground Copenhagen center for music and free lifestyle, mainly used by autonomists and leftists for two decades until 2007. Denmark was also the first country to legalize same-sex sexual activity, in 1933; and legalize homosexual/lesbian/transvestite marriage, on June 15, 2012. Since 1977, the consent age for sex of any kind by any gender is 15. Nevertheless, as a member of NATO and EU, Denmark cooperates with both pro-US institutions, including in war games. Ironically, it was after the fall of “communism” and the end of the cold war that Denmark decided to begin its “activist foreign policy,” based upon following the US into its wars, including breaking up Yugoslavia, the last European socialist state, and warring in the Middle East and Africa.
Denmark losing its peace and social democracy
Denmark’s 5.5 million residents support a permanent military force of about 20,000. Although there is a draft, one can choose to perform civil service instead. No one is forced to go to war unless Denmark is attacked, so those who war are volunteer mercenaries and earn more money.
The last Social Democratic Prime Minister, Helle Thorning Schmidt, was the first woman in the post. During her term, October 2011-June 2015, her enthusiasm for war included offering Barak Obama her military for “regime change” in Syria. She seemed disappointed that a war to remove Bashar al-Assad had been averted when Syria turned over all its chemical weapons for destruction, “no thanks” to Vladimir Putin’s input. She declared (September 2, 2014): “Denmark is one of those countries that deliver most. We are at the level with Americans, and in that way we also consider Denmark a strong, active and very solidarity NATO land.” Obama seemed to echo Schmidt when he welcomed Denmark’s current liberal Prime Minister (PM) Lars Loekke Rasmussen, and the other four Nordic land leaders, to a State Dinner on May 13, 2016.
“The world would be better if more countries were like the Nordic lands.” “We share common interest and values”. You “punch above [your] weight.” He underscored Denmark’s recent decision to increase its military and economic aid to Afghanistan, and expressed thanks for DONG’s wind energy projects in Massachusetts.
Denmark’s public television correspondent, Stephanie Surrugue, interpreted this praise as an American receipt for Denmark’s role in the “war on terror”. The most important matter discussed that day was US and Nordic governments’ response to “Russian aggression,” reminiscent of 2014 when Russia reclaimed Crimea after 97% of voters there so asked. Denmark had already temporarily sent 6 F-16s and rotating troops to the Baltic and Poland. When PM Rasmussen returned to Denmark after dinner, he sent another 150 troops. NATO will now have 6000 permanent troops in these four countries plus in Rumania and Bulgaria. In Obama’s dinner welcome, he extended another hand to Prime Minister Rasmussen, whose government and ally parties are known for being anti-immigrant. Obama referred to media critique against the new “Jewelry Law” as disproportional. The law cuts way back on immigration and asylum-seekers, even for those fleeing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where Denmark has long had hostile troops. The government even places ads around the continent warning refugees not to come.
The jewelry law allows police to seize personal belongings worth over $1,450 (jewelry and cash) from those who apply for asylum, reviving memories of how Jews were dispossessed of their belongings. One of the positive aspects Denmark is known for is its rescue of Jews when Hitler gave orders to eliminate them. Danes quickly took them to Sweden, which was neutral.
A few days after Obama justified Denmark’s grim treatment of refugees fleeing wars, Syrian families seeking exile started legal action against a new law that forbids the joining of family members for three years; it had been one year. Thousands of exiles are split from their closest ones due to civil conflicts where they come from. The refugees have a good chance of winning the court case especially as it was filed the day after the European Human Rights Court judged Denmark in violation of human rights regarding a law that discriminates against immigrants. An immigrant who marries someone living in another land cannot bring his/her partner to Denmark before they are 24 years old. This law is connected to another that only allows equality of natives and immigrants once the immigrant has been a citizen for 26 years. The main lawmaker considered these laws as making Denmark Europe’s “pioneer” in “hardening laws” against immigrants-refugees.
The current Foreign-Integration Minister, Inger Stoejberg, expressed disdain for the Court’s decision. She said that she would find a way to maintain and extend tightening immigration-refugee rules. “If we can’t do it one way, we’ll do it another.”
On the occasion of the White House State dinner, the five Nordic nations signed a “summit joint statement” with the US reaffirming “our deep partnership on shared fundamental values” that include strengthening NATO, backing the Baltic States and Poland with weaponry, aircraft and troops, pressing Russia on many fronts, “stabilizing” Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other areas.
Finland and Sweden also planned to end their neutrality and join NATO, where Denmark, Norway and Iceland already sit. Sweden signed a Host County Agreement with NATO after the dinner giving the war alliance rights to military troops and exercises on Swedish territory and even the right to war on Swedish territory “if a crisis” warrants it. Finland signed a similar agreement. Danish PM Loekke Rasmussen diligently prepared to please his host.
Since 9/11 all the Danish governments (so-called blue/conservative and red/liberal block coalitions) support the many regime shifts outlined by the first George Bush government, about which I will write in future pieces. During the April 2016 Danish parliament debate to invade Syria and extend Denmark’s military capacity in Iraq, the foreign minister, Kristian Jensen, made no bones about it: “Our goal is quite simple. In relationship to Syria our goal is to remove Assad, as one of the worst dictators in the world at this time.” He also stated that Denmark would fight the Islamic State.
According to United Nations law, as well as Denmark’s own constitution, war must not be waged if: there is no UN mandate, or the country in question is not attacking the nation. With Syria, no specific plans are stated about directly attacking government forces. However, the Syrian government has not asked Denmark or the “coalition of the willing” to aid it in its defense against IS, and thus the invasion is illegal.
Pleasing the United States before dinner
1. April 19, Denmark’s parliament voted 90 to 19 to send 460 military instructors and technicians, including 60 Special Forces soldiers, to Syria and Iraq, along with seven F-16s, and a C-130J transport aircraft. Why did 40% of the parliament (70 highly paid members) not vote on the most important question: whether to kill people and do so against international law?
2. May 10, parliament decided to send16 more soldiers to Afghanistan bringing their numbers to 100. This came after the US stated it will increase its troops there by 7-800. It now has about 10,000. The tiny country also did the US’s bidding against Libya in 2011 with 6 F-16s and 120 soldiers. As the US discusses the possibility of warring there once again, Denmark is ready.
3. May 12, the day before the Nordic state and foreign ministers were to eat at Obama’s table, Denmark’s government decided to buy 27 F-35 jet fighters before they were built by the world’s largest weapons company, Lockheed-Martin. The initial cost of 20 billion kroner ($3 billion) is the largest military expense in Danish history. Danish defense experts estimate that the real cost will run between three and four times that with upkeep and 30 years “normal” use. (Note: Canada’s new government just cancelled its order for F-35s, saying it wanted planes that were cheaper and that were known to actually work.) The government ignored 53.3% of Danes, who opposed buying more bomber jets, with only 30.8% favoring buying them. The poll was commissioned by Denmark’s most right-wing daily. Last year, a Gallup poll found that the same percentage of Danes opposed the proposal.
4. On the same day, Denmark’s energy company DONG stated it plans an initial public offering (IPO) of at least 15 percent of its shares on the Nasdaq Copenhagen stock exchange this summer. The estimated value is around $11 billion. This will be the largest IPO in Danish history.
The state-controlled utility said the move would reduce the government’s stake in the company from 58.8 percent to 50.1 percent, and the government could sell more of its share in 2020 and lose control. It was originally all state-owned. In 2014, Goldman Sachs, the world’s most powerful and infamous investment firm, bought 18 percent of DONG for $1.2 billion. But it wasn’t even the New York GS company, rather a subsidiary in Luxembourg owned by a shell company tax haven in Delaware and Cayman Islands. With its minority ownership, GS insisted on determining Denmark’s energy company’s leadership. It then pushed DONG to go IPO, and threatened to shut down renewable energy sources if the government didn’t increase its subsidies.
Eighty percent of Danes opposed the sale; 200,000 signed petitions. Nevertheless, the Social Democrat government refused to explain why it did not sell those shares to Danish pension fund companies which made offers. SD’s junior partner Socialist People’s Party (SF) quit the government over the scandal. The deal was so undemocratic that Goldman Sachs hired the former prime minister and ex-NATO general secretary, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, as its PR man in Denmark to smooth over the controversy. Just days after the White House State Dinner, the stock exchange valued DONG to be three times its underrated value in 2014, from about $5 billion to $13-15 billion. The “incentive plan” for DONG leadership garnered them $70 million, which raises suspicions that the company’s worth was deliberately undervalued. And the $1.2-$1.5 billion profit that Goldman Sachs plucked could have benefited Danish society had the shares been sold to Danish owned workers pension fund companies. The Social Democrat government’s finance minister at the time, Bjarne Corydon, is seen as the bourgeoisie’s Trojan Horse.
The May 27, 2016 editorial in “Politiken”, a liberal capitalist daily, called the course of events “ugly”, and said it has “increased mistrust”, so much so that a staff writer wrote “This is the stuff that makes ordinary people turn their back on the powers that be and look towards Donald Trump”. While half of DONG’s electricity and heat generation comes from renewable sources, it also buys coal mined in Colombia where death squads operate. In December 2015, Danish and international media revealed how DONG and Sweden’s government-own Vattenfall bought coal from the murderous Prodeco mining firm owned by Glencore. BBC reported (2012) that Prodeco paid for the murder of ten residents, in 2002, so it could take their land.
In 2014, PAX NGO documented (including with testimonies of nine former paramilitary members) that Prodeco and another mining company had paid death squads for murdering 3000 people—workers, local residents and milieu activists—between 1996 and 2006; “disappearing” 200 people, and forcing 55,000 to leave their homes. Colombian authorities merely fined and temporarily locked down Prodeco for causing serious environmental damage. (See:” The Dark Side of Coal” report. http://www.paxforpeace.nl/stay-informed/news/danish-media-and-politician…, and Glencore’s reply: http://www.glencore.com/public-positions/related-information/) One-third of Danish electricity comes from coal—4.5 million tons in 2014—and half of that comes from Colombia. DONG bought 950,000 tons of coal from Prodeco, in 2014, and 160,000 tons in 2015, after exposure about its murders. As of this writing DONG has not severed ties with Prodeco, and it is hard to find workers who still believe the Social Democratic party represents workers. Denmark comes to dinner Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen came gleefully to dinner bearing those many gifts for America, and he thanked his world leader host for the “lucrative export contracts for Danish businesses.” These war-profiteering “gifts” offered to the world’s policeman belie Bernie Sanders portrayal of Denmark as socialist and humanitarian as he has so often proclaimed during the long US Democratic Party primary campaign.
Sanders is a social democrat, who mistakenly yet bravely refers of himself as a socialist. He thinks well of Scandinavia because, after class struggle there like in all of Europe, it introduced social benefits: “providing health care to all people as a right” and “medical and family paid leave,” as he repeatedly says.
A few days after his initiated this postulate early in the primary campaign, the Danish prime minister set Sanders straight, saying, “I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy…with a flexible labor market that makes it easy to hire or fire.”
This is the first in a short series of articles that spring from discussions I’ve had with several people regarding the Danish/Scandinavian model of social democracy, or socialism as Bernie Sanders contends. Some well intentioned persons view the Nordic Model as a solution to greedy capitalism, while others view its role as a seditious savior of exploitative capitalism. Many Cubans I knew when living there (1988-96) and visiting since see the Nordic Model as a way out for their failing revolution, gone the way of a bureaucratic state. Some Spaniards backing Podemos hope to emulate Scandinavia, whose social democracy is also failing, unbeknownst to many foreign admirers. I have been encouraged by Podemos activist Pepe Crespo (http://elchiroilustrado.blogspot.com); Bernie Sanders supporter and colleague Dave Lindorff (www.thiscantbehappening.net); Left socialist William Hathaway, author of “Radical Peace” (www.peacewriter.org); Marxist-Leninist communist Klaus Riis (www.kpnet.dk); and my companion Jette Salling. Without their urgings I would not have delved into these complex themes: state of the world—social democracy or socialism, which way forward; or be it doomsday (stemming from Germanic and Nordic “ragnarok” mythology). Hathaway put it this way. We are witnessing “the death of social democracy in Europe coupled with the rise of pseudo-left parties that exist to channel potentially revolutionary energy into reformist dead-ends…the crackdown on social democracy is inevitable under capitalism. These progressive measures were only allowed to stimulate consumption because the main consumer market then [Europe 1920s-70s and USA in Keynesian time, 30s-70s] was in the home countries. Now the market is global, and the corporations have to slash costs to compete with the emerging capitalist countries, which have lower wages, so social democracy has to go. But this crackdown may finally make the workers in the West realize their class position and start fighting back.”
Lindorff put it another way. “Sanders [social democratic approach] offered a chance, slim to be sure, to attack the country’s corrupt power structure. Sanders has urged his backers to create a movement, not for him but for the issues that matter which he is backing, but he undercut that by his cave-in to the Democratic power brokers and his endorsement of Hillary Clinton, whom he had so aptly exposed as a paid tool of the corporatocracy, and especially Wall Street.
RON RIDENOUR is the author of six books on Cuba, (“Backfire: The CIA’s Biggest Burn”) plus “Yankee Sandinistas”, “Sounds of Venezuela”, “Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka”. He has lived and worked in Latin America including in Cuba 1988-96 (Cuba’s Editorial José Martí and Prensa Latina), Denmark, Iceland, Japan, India. www.ronridenour.com; email: firstname.lastname@example.org