Book review: Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got it Right—and How We Can, Too

viking econ

Mark Leier
Burnaby, BC

In 1959, George Lakey, 21 years old, left the United States for Norway to marry a Norwegian woman he had met at a Quaker student program. They returned to the U.S. where he trained as a sociologist, and together they attended the historic 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech. That began a lifetime of combining scholarship with the needs of social movements: Lakey has led over 1,500 workshops on social change on five continents and is the author of several books on the subject.

In 2008, Lakey returned to Norway for the first of several research trips to learn how Scandinavian countries created dynamic economies while strengthening freedom and equality. As Lakey demonstrates, the Nordic countries outstrip the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Canada in virtually every social metric. Crime rates are much lower. Education is free: students do not graduate university with crippling debt loads. Affordable child care has empowered women. People live longer and are healthier. Social programs shield the population from the booms and busts of the market. Norwegian companies are innovative and competitive, yet unemployment is lower than in the U.S.; workers are paid better, are more productive, and work fewer hours. Community is a lived reality, not nostalgia. Most importantly, the gap between the richest and the poorest is much smaller. This rough equality is the key to the better social outcomes, for social and health indicators, ranging from obesity to crime to mental health, are strikingly better in countries that are more equal. Social equality and economic security explain why Norwegians report they are happier, more trusting, and have greater faith in their political and social institutions than the citizens of most countries in the world.

They have built these societies with none of the advantages afforded the U.S., Canada, or the UK. Readers with connections to Norway will appreciate the historical overview, much of it rooted in Lakey’s experience and that of his Norwegian family, of the problems the country faced. Little arable land, a small internal market, few natural resources, harsh geography, and industrial development marked by low wages and terrible living conditions meant that at the beginning of the twentieth century, Norway’s chief export was people: over 1.5% of its population emigrated to the U.S. between 1895 and 1900. Compared to the United States, with all of its advantages, including a diverse and creative population gathered from the world, Norway hardly seemed the place people could create a more equitable society. And yet they did.

Viking Economics does not gloss over the very real problems and contradictions the Nordic countries continue to face. The Sámi, the nomadic indigenous people who travel across Scandinavia, have long been victims of discrimination. Statoil, the oil company largely owned by the Norwegian government, has been a major investor in the Canadian tar sands, perhaps the most environmentally damaging fossil fuel project in the world. As immigration rates have risen, so too have xenophobia, racism, and far-right movements. But what Lakey points to time and again are the ways in which Scandinavians work for inclusive, creative, democratic solutions to move society forward. The Sámi and their institutions have considerable authority in Norway and Sweden. Public pressure induced Statoil to divest from its tar sands holdings. A majority of Norwegians believe ethnic diversity, with all its challenges and possibilities, is a positive development.

It took, and it continues to take, work. That may sound pessimistic, but it is in fact an optimistic assessment, for it means social change can happen elsewhere. Lakey outlines how Scandinavians organized to change their societies and deals forthrightly with doubters. Norway has a different culture than the U.S., but that means Americans can borrow and adapt from others just as others have borrowed from them. The U.S. is much larger and less homogenous than Nordic countries, but it has many examples of successful nationwide projects. Big money corrupts U.S. politics, but historically labor and the civil rights struggle, and the contemporary fight for LGBT rights, have used non-violent direct action to make profound political changes. If American institutions are failing, the American people still have the capacity to create new and powerful social movements.

Lakey offers ideas on how to build them. They need to be popular, inclusive, and diverse; unlike Occupy, they need to develop clear, broad visions for the future. Viking Economics suggests what such a vision might look like, neither utopian nor piecemeal, but practical and within our reach. The book is a clear, thoughtful, and eloquent argument for the social change Americans have said they want. Best of all, it proves it is possible.

Mark Leier is a historian at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC. He is the author of Bakunin: The Creative Passion and Rebel Life: The Life and Times of Robert Gosden, Revolutionary, Mystic, Labour Spy.

This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.