In recent years there has been a strong tendency from progressives, and even some people who classify themselves as “socialists”, of pining after social democracy, often the so-called “Nordic model”. Social democracy, in this context, broadly refers to a governing system where capitalism is still dominant, but there exist stronger social safety nets, featuring some form of universal health care, higher wages, more paid time off, increased union membership, universal child care, and so on. While undeniably an improvement of the unrestricted capitalism found in the United States, the Nordic model has a dark side to it as well, and it is not something that anyone who considers themselves on the left should be interested in pursuing. Because social democracy isn’t an antidote to imperialism; instead, it’s imperialism rebranded for the 21st century.
Under the Nordic model the quality of life in the Scandinavian countries has undeniably improved significantly. But it has come at the cost of the global south, whose exploitation is essential for this model to work. Furthermore, it needs to be kept in mind that these countries are predominantly homogeneous in terms of both ethnic makeup and culture, and have seen strong rises in anti-immigrant views in recent years. In the most recent election in Denmark the Social Democrat party won by adopting massive anti-immigrant policies, including a plan to stop accepting an annual quota of refugees, the creation of a “ghetto plan”, prison sentences for immigrant parents who take children to visit the countries of their birth, and mandatory “culture and values” education for children who are not ethnically Danes, starting at age 1. We shouldn’t view this as an aberration. The social democrats in Denmark take the view that immigrants threaten their social welfare systems by requiring more resources from it, the type of argument that wouldn’t seem out of place from reactionaries in any country around the globe. As this demonstrates, as long as the structures of capitalism remain in place, the other harmful hierarchies that go along with it will remain in place as well. This can be seen beyond simply in the case of the treatment of political and religious minorities. Although the Nordic countries are generally praised for having stronger gender equality than other capitalist nations, the rate of intimate partner violence (IPV) against women in the Nordic countries is significantly higher than in other European countries, with Denmark’s rate at 32%, meaning that roughly one third of Danish women have been subjected to physical violence by their partners. This helps to illustrate how reforming capitalism won’t help us in dismantling the patriarchy.
However, the true rot of the social democracies only becomes apparent when you view them as they exist in the global system and how they interact with nations in the global south. Much like the US and the western European nations, the standards of living in the Nordic countries are based not on having invented a wonderful system that can provide for everyone’s needs, but based on the exploitation of resources and labor of the global south. Lenin described one of the key tendencies of imperialism as “the exploitation of oppressed nations—which is inseparably connected with annexations—and especially the exploitation of colonies by a handful of “Great” Powers, increasingly transforms the “civilised” world into a parasite on the body of hundreds of millions in the uncivilised nations.” While the large colonial empires of Lenin’s time have largely dispersed, the relationships have not so much disappeared as they have changed form. The global south is exploited, and the western powers profit.
We can begin by looking at some of the ways these nations themselves, as well as their major corporations (who are often tied up hand in hand with the government either on paper or in terms of mutually beneficial arrangements, not unlike in the US) have behaved. Telenor, the Norwegian communications giant which is partially owned by the state, was exposed for exploiting child labor in truly horrific conditions in Bangladesh, including having these children handling chemical substances without any protection (which lead to at least one known death). Similarly, Swedish clothing company H&M is able to offer affordable clothing for westerners solely because of the way they exploit cheap labor in nations like Bangladesh. According to a breakdown provided by John Smith in “Imperialism in the 21st Century”, of the sale price of an H&M shirt, only 0.95 euros remain in Bangladesh to cover all of the costs put into the production, while the remaining 3.54 euros are extracted along with the products for H&M’s profits, as well as for taxes. In other words, while workers in Bangladesh do almost all of the work, they, along with the nation itself, see almost none of the profit; meanwhile H&M as well as the Swedish government make enormous profits off of their suffering. This pattern can be seen repeated throughout all of the Nordic countries, and indeed all throughout the so called developed world. It is a fact that everyone in the global north needs to confront head on that the quality of life that they enjoy, and the affordable products that they have access to, both necessities and luxuries, are only made possible due to unpaid or underpaid labor coming from the global south. “Development” doesn’t just reside specially in the powers of North America and Europe; it has been systematically extracted from South America, Africa and Asia, and a system that perpetuates that exploitation, but provides more of the fruits of the exploitation to workers in the northern countries instead of only the shareholders is not a fairer system for the global proletariat.
The Norwegiean oil company Statoil, which is partially owned by the state, has been involved in numerous corruption cases around the world centered around their exploitation of the local oil resources, in countries such as Iran and Libya. And Norway’s connections to Libya run far deeper than just a corruption scandal from 2008; Norway dropped 588 bombs on Libya during the war taken against the country by NATO. Afterwards, Statoil was involved in the extraction of Libya’s oil. In the span of a few years, Libya went from a country that had exceptionally strong health care, and significantly better gender equality and life expectancy of most of its neighbors, to a nation with slave markets so that Norway and their allies could extract the oil. This is in many ways one of the purest examples you can find of what had led Lenin to classify imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism; the merging of monopoly corporations with state power for the resource extraction of poorer nations.
The imperialism of the Nordic countries might be surprising to some, considering that we don’t generally think of these nations as being colonial empires. But although the Nordic countries were not colonizers on the level of the British, Spanish, Portuguese or French, they were colonizers. The Norwegian controlled Société du Madal in Portuguese Mozambique ran coconut plantations, which were dug out and worked by indigenous people and used child labor under brutal conditions. Denmark had a variety of colonial holdings around the world, including the Danish West Indies which were sold to the US in 1916. They’re now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands where they continue to be colonial subjects of an empire to this day. Although Sweden had a variety of colonial holdings around the Americas and Africa, their worst case example would be the treatment of Saint Barthélemy, an island in the Caribbean which they purchased from France during the time of Louis XVI in 1784. Sweden began shipping in slaves, and soon between one-third to half of the island’s population were slaves (Sweden, it should be noted, was among the last European nations to outlaw slavery). Although there were at least 6,000 people living on the island in the early parts of the 19th century, by 1875 the population had been reduced to merely 2,000 people. Just two years later, Sweden sold the island back to the French government, who continue to control it to this day. To this day, the Swedish people and government have never truly reckoned with their colonizing days, and you can see the ramifications of that in their continued imperialism.
And returning to the present day, we come to the most essential issue of the 21st century: climate change. The Nordic countries aren’t generally thought of as being some of the biggest contributors to climate change, but they have among the worst CO2 emissions per capita, as well some of the highest resource use. While about 7 tonnes of material use per person per year is considered a sustainable level by experts, the Nordic countries average around 32 tonnes, on par with the US (Norway and Finland even exceed the US in this department). Norway is rated one of the least sustainable nations in the world by the sustainable development index (SDI), with only Canada, the US, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Singapore behind it. Finland is just ahead of it, while Denmark and Sweden fare only slightly better, being ranked 139th and 144th respectively. On the other hand, Cuba is 9th and Bolivia is 20th. This isn’t an accident on Norway’s part, either. Oil extraction is key to their economic model which funds everything else. (Interestingly, I hear far fewer people talk about Norway’s failures to transition away from oil than I do for Venezuela, who rank 50th by SDI, far above any of the Scandinavian countries) While all carbon emissions and pollution disproportionately affect the global south, Sweden takes it even further. Multiple generations of the Chilean community of Arica were poisoned by the Swedish mining company Boliden when the company dumped improperly-treated toxic waste in their community. When the people of Arica attempted to take legal action against Boliden for the harm brought to them, the Swedish supreme court ruled that too much time had passed since Boliden exported the waste, and left the plaintiffs with the €3.2 million in legal fees. Boliden is hardly the only Swedish company to be caught for wrongdoings in Chile specifically. Swedish corporation SCA was found guilty of price fixing on toilet paper in Chile between 2000 and 2011, part of a wider range of price fixing happening all throughout Chile that contributed to the 2019 uprising which took place. Back home, that same SCA has been one of the leading contributors to the destruction of the Great Northern Forest. As with everything else, social democracy has no cure for overconsumption; all it can do is make the consumption more evenly distributed. But in order to save the planet we must do better than that. We need a socialist society which reduces consumption and improves living conditions all across the globe.
While the Nordic countries receive lavish praise for being the happiest countries on earth and are seen by many as a more equitable society that we should strive for, it is more honest to view them as the smiling face of capitalism. They might treat you better than the nasty face put forward by the USA or the United Kingdom, but the smiling figure can hide a knife behind their back just the same. In order to end capitalism (and by extent, imperialism, capitalism’s highest stage) we must have a new program to offer which steps completely outside the existing power dynamics rather than simply shifting them around slightly as the social democracies have done. The only cure for this unchecked imperialism and the destruction of the environment is a radical new stage of society which places the global south on the same footing as the global north. It’s our mission to help everyone find their way there.