After groups have a conflict, the dominance pattern is upended and those previously on the margins speak up! It doesn’t matter what the conflict is about — it can be about the color of the drapes. It’s just that a conflict upsets the prevailing order and those who were playing it safe step up!”
Because history is now giving us the opportunity for larger change, we can use this time to
- get ready to come out charging. That means
- sharpening our strategy skills and
- giving up the distraction of one-off witness events. It means
- getting more clarity about our vision so we can
- win more people over to our cause through common-sense descriptions of what we want. And it means
- building more effective organizations so our teamwork is more powerful and our capacity is larger.
A Resource For This Moment That Strengthens Activist Groups
Training for Change recently re-published “Grassroots and Nonprofit Leadership: A Guide for Organizations in Changing Times,” which gives us a grounding in “what works” for increasing effectiveness. Training for Change has for decades been consulting and leading workshops for grassroots and labor groups, as well as sharing its activist-friendly pedagogy known as direct education. Its trainers found that many of the groups they worked with needed not only skills but also new structures to be more effective.
The book was written in a highly collective way by George and Berit Lakey, Janice Robinson and Rod Napier. We started by doing intensive interviews with a wide range of diverse organizers who’ve worked in civil rights, peace, environment and LGBTQ groups, as well as labor and grassroots neighborhood organizations. We asked what works for start-ups and for longer-established groups.
Four of us drew the interviews together and added our own experience. Berit Lakey was a pioneer in anti-rape and anti-racism groups, and Janice Robinson built a community health center in Harlem. Meanwhile, Rod Napier helped innovative schools, and I built direct action campaigning groups. We’d all done consulting work, helping groups handle divisive conflicts and developing better structures that fit the work they were doing.
The book is full of stories from groups’ experiences. Because the groups were mostly in the United States, we were surprised when the book was published, in translation, in Egypt, Serbia and Thailand. In the latter, for example, it helped some grassroots groups innovate beyond traditional lines of hierarchy.
Organizations Can Learn To Handle More Turbulence
Taking a cue from black historian Vincent Harding’s book “There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America,” the central metaphor of our manual is white-water rafting. The chapters are organized into: “Approaching the River, Fortifying the Raft, Steering through White Water, and Facing the Boulders.” The authors include the typical nonprofit structure and go beyond it, describing alternatives. Accepting that one size does not fit all, the book invites readers to choose among options to find what will work with the characteristics of your group.
The book is also unique in encouraging a conflict-friendly culture suitable for social change movements. There are specific tools for supporting members to express their differences directly, whether that’s differences over strategy or identity. The goal is developing a cohesive and united team that can handle repression or infiltration.
The book also offers tips on how to facilitate effective meetings that make decisions while saving time, and how to form task groups that get their job done and develop a learning curve at the same time. Too many activists overlook the loss of morale that comes from repeating the “same-old, same-old” practices that yield only mediocre results. An easy way to improve morale, for example, is to take a short amount of time de-briefing each meeting. Over time, a learning curve develops, the meetings improve, people notice and morale goes up.
The manual puts organizational practice in the larger context of building social movements that can force major change. That means keeping a group’s attention outward, “beyond the choir” as Jonathan Matthew Smucker puts it, and also inward through thoughtful attention to leadership development.
The pandemic’s shake-up is accelerating the pace of change in all societies I know about. That means opportunity, for those who know how to use it. Naomi Klein has pointed to “disaster capitalism”: Our opponents try to maximize their profits through using shake-ups like this one, pouring time and energy into learning as rapidly as possible how to use their opportunity.
We can also increase our learning curve as rapidly as possible. This book supports that, and you can enhance the book’s power by reading it with others in your group and scheduling Zoom conversations to speed through it, chapter by chapter.
Why the Resistance can’t win without vision
It’s time to move past reactivity to Trump and channel that passion into more focused movement-building for change.George Lakey January 19, 2018
We’ve had our first year of tweets and leaks from the White House, complete with reactions and outrage in the United States and abroad. The tsunami of words and feelings about Trump has dominated the media and is likely to continue. The question is: Will reactivity to Trump continue among activists, or are we ready to channel our passion into more focused movement-building for change?
Not long ago organizers and activists were telling each other that “another world is possible.” It still is. Based on history, however, that other world can’t be reached through protesting what we don’t like. I can’t think of any countries that transformed simply because movements reacted against injustice.
Movements are successful when they fight for something. Like athletes who improve when they visualize a higher jump or more graceful dive, movements also improve their game by imagining a better world, one with alternatives to the current systems of injustice.
In 2015, 60 Canadian indigenous, labor, environmentalist and social justice leaders came to this realization. They spent two days outlining the major features of an alternative Canada that would put justice first. After a period of additional clarification, a subgroup jelled the agreements into “The Leap Manifesto.” They called it a “leap” because Canadian political discourse had fallen into the death of creativity known as “next steps,” an incrementalism that rules the Democratic Party in the United States. The Canadian leaders knew that only an evolutionary leap would enable their country to face its gathering crisis and turn it into an opportunity for justice and environmental sanity.
By acknowledging the rightward drift of Canadian political parties and choosing to create an independent platform, the Leap Manifesto injected new energy and possibility into Canadian political life. The New Democratic Party, or NDP, a disappointment to Canadian progressives in recent years, was itself inspired to reconsider its retreat from its legacy.
Why the Resistance doesn’t have a winning strategy
Polls show majorities opposed to much of the agenda of Trump and the right; the tax bill is one recent example. Many liberals and progressives have gone on the defensive, trying to hold on to previously-achieved gains.
In the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan and the right wing attacked gains for justice, liberals and progressives also went on the defensive. All the major movements – labor, women, school reform, seniors, civil rights, environmentalists – lost ground. They tried to hang on to women’s reproductive rights, for example, and the civil rights movement tried to retain integrated schools and voting rights, and slid backwards. Labor, environmentalists and the other movements lost ground.
These days, despite majority support for liberal and progressive policies, the defense by movements is at best a holding action. As in the period after Reagan assumed office, losses are accumulating.
This is odd. It’s appealingly romantic to describe oneself as part of “the resistance.” Resistance is a political identity that seeks to unleash passion, hard work and boldness, and it often does. Nevertheless, going on the defense increases the chance of losing! To understand why, we need to turn to the world of strategic thinking. Gandhi is one of many successful strategists who said that in order to win it’s necessary to take the offensive and stay there. If you trust military generals more than Gandhi, you’ll hear the same thing: No one ever won a war by being on the defensive.
Even folk wisdom agrees: “The best defense is an offense.”
The only major U.S. movement that has won major gains since 1980 did so by refusing to go on the defensive. Instead of trying to hold on to previous wins, the visionary LGBTQ movement went on the offensive. Despite a backdrop of thousands of years of oppression, the movement continually set new goals. In its most critical period, the AIDS crisis, ACT-UP and others stepped up their level of nonviolent confrontation. When I first came out as a gay man in the early 1970s, I could never have imagined the change that has been catalyzed by our campaigns.
What a vision can offer
A well-crafted vision offers a connection point for unity, an attractive means of outreach, and a source of positive energy in a degraded political environment. Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign was attractive partly because many people who were previously in a silo, in this or that campaign, co-op, campus or community group, experienced the fact that “We are many!” Unity releases energy, contradicts despair and invites boldness.
The advantage of a widely-shared vision over a candidate is a vision’s staying power and explicit linking of multiple dimensions to each other. The Leap Manifesto shows how the interests of rural indigenous people, urban workers and students intersect in the vision of an alternative Canada. As any one of various movements makes a gain, it advances the struggles of others as well because visionaries take the time to show how the new model we are fighting for is synergistic, greater than the sum of its parts.
Instead of long, involved analyses on intersectionality, a well-crafted vision cuts to the chase and offers a positive means of outreach. A vision supports us to “see ourselves in each other.” It can be written in common sense terms, touching base with positive American values.
Because a vision shows what we want, rather than railing against what we don’t want, it attracts people to us and our positivity. America’s polarizing trend includes ugly and violent fallout. The right kind of vision is a magnet for people who see the need for action but are repelled by extremist and violent rhetoric.
Putting together a vision paid off for polarizing Sweden and Norway, both of which experienced rising Nazi movements in the 1920s and ‘30s. The democratic socialists found people flocking to them because they raised a vision for an alternative social and economic order with justice, shared abundance, individual freedom and real democracy. The once-small movement became a mass struggle, using nonviolent direct action to force the 1 percent out of dominance and implement what economists call “the Nordic model.”
How hard will it be to agree to a widely-shared vision?
As Naomi Klein points out in her book, “No Is Not Enough,” when times get tough, creative people often offer utopias and support dialogue about visionary alternatives. We saw that in the United States during the 1930s, when vision helped the New Deal make strides forward. In recent decades, however, we’ve seen our political class, including the Democrats, work hard to lower the aspirations of people who don’t happen to be rich. Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of Bernie Sanders’ reference to Denmark’s equality is typical. All the more remarkable that the Movement for Black Lives broke ranks in 2016 and offered their vision of an economy that would give the United States a chance to reject the inequality that locks in racism.
At the moment, popular culture prefers dystopia to visions of liberation, but my just-completed coast-to-coast book tour suggests a way forward in what may still be a vision-averse culture. I found standing-room-only bookstore crowds inspired by the sheer practicality and good sense of the Nordic model. There is an old theme in U.S. culture of reverence for pragmatism. When people hear about the pragmatic nature of how the Nordic model works, they get excited.
A Google search establishes the modern Vikings’ place at the top of the international charts for equality, economic well-being, justice and individual freedom. Their innovativeness is so well supported that Norway has more start-ups per capita than the United States.
Those countries were in bad shape a century ago. Their cultural homogeneity did not produce progressive economies. They had high rates of inequality, massive poverty and a pretend democracy. A century ago the diverse United States was way ahead of them in technology, progressive cultural liveliness and innovative education.
Once they made their power shift and ditched the 1 percent as their countries’ leadership, the Nordics were free to implement a vision based on non-capitalist assumptions. One principle was that of Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal: An economy should focus on the well-being of the worker instead of on the profits of the owner. Scandinavians then surged ahead of the United States and remain so — while, in the meantime, becoming far more diverse. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Norwegians have a higher percentage of foreign-born citizens than the United States.
The U.S. movements’ vision needs to be broader than our version of the Nordic model, but using their proven track record is one way to start. Going beyond Bernie Sanders’ laundry list of policy items to an actual model grounds us and adds credibility to our vision for practical Americans. It then gives us a chance to build a massive movement of movements as U.S. political legitimacy continues to decline.
If historical lessons add up to anything, an appealing vision of some kind is a must-have to transform the United States.
A Vision for Black Lives’ is a vision for everyone
The vision will benefit all of us. So we must beware of the subtle tendency to reduce its impact by reducing it to the color of its origins. By George Lakey August 18, 2016
On August 1, the Movement for Black Lives, with support from dozens of related organizations, issued its vision of a transformed United States that could realize racial justice. The vision is a major step forward in coherence and clarity for a still-young grassroots insurgency, and deserves the attention of allies everywhere.
As you would expect from the movement’s origins, the document leads with the need to stop the institutionalized practices and justifications for violence against black people. The writers place black queer women, trans, unemployed and incarcerated youth at the center since those groups are a margin within the marginalized black community.
Thoughtful visionaries know that stopping historic injustice requires creating alternatives. The document outlines a set of specific alternatives. Although in this brief column I won’t try to summarize the multi-dimensional Movement for Black Lives vision, I am struck by how powerfully the main features make sense not only on their own, but also how they interact with each other.
The wisdom of the reparations section of the platform lies in its acknowledgement that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. never tired of saying, “justice delayed is justice denied.” Additional steps need to be taken to make up for the century-and-a-half interval since the federal government broke its promise to an enslaved people, the promise of a fresh start.
The reparations emphasize grassroots economic development, including co-ops. These confidence-building measures interact with a separate section on economic justice and another called “Invest-Divest.” When the assortment of tools is put together the result is greater than the sum of the parts. The vision offers what is most prized in a design: synergy.
For example, the vision calls for using tax codes to redistribute wealth and starting jobs programs that provide a living wage and offering free training and education and allowing enhanced freedom for workers to organize unions. It’s easy to see the synergy, and the resulting re-weaving of a community battered by racism and joblessness.
What the mass media miss
The boldest thing about the vision is that it is for all of us. Those who portray this as special pleading by “an “interest group” are wrong; it is not Lyndon Johnson’s so-called War on Poverty or a renewed call for affirmative action. The document urges what non-black people also need, for example to oppose privatization of publicly owned institutions and to set aside the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, trade deal. It demands democratic control of natural resources and public schools.
The vision will benefit all of us; we must beware of the subtle tendency to reduce the impact of the vision by reducing it to the color of its origins. Note The Guardian’s August 1 coverage of the vision: “Alongside the race-specific measures are also progressive wish list items such as forgoing fossil fuels for renewables, universal healthcare, cuts in military spending and public election financing.” The condescending journalist’s separating out a “progressive wish list” reveals the lack of understanding of what a vision is, and of who is entitled to envision. King had the same problem when he came out against the Vietnam War and was criticized by white liberals who hinted that he should stay “in his place” as a “race leader” and not poke his nose into matters better handled by the people suited to take wider responsibility — the white people.
I see the document as highly integrated, rather than a segregated set of race-specific proposals with a wish list “alongside” it. Why create jobs and alternative institutions that cannot be sustained after passage of the TPP? Why demand billions from the federal budget for community development if that money is already reserved for the military-industrial complex? How is poverty to be abolished if billions are wasted on our inefficient private health care system? The “wish list” is in fact necessary for the whole.
The mainstream media also miss the full value of a vision to a social movement. Vision is only partly public relations for a young movement; more importantly, it serves to guide the movement itself and support it to grow.
How vision helps movements grow
“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there,” as the saying goes. We choose more effective everyday tactics when we know where we’re headed. Strategy’s job is to put tactics together over time to increase the movement’s growth and power, so it’s even more important to know our destination when we choose a strategy.
An example of vision’s importance is in Earth Quaker Action Team’s new campaign, which demands increased use of solar energy. The easy strategy for EQAT would have been to encourage middle-class suburban white folks to solarize their houses.
The likely destination of that strategy, however, would be a “solar divide” — something like the “digital divide” generated decades ago: People with money get benefits poor people can’t access. The destination would increase the class divide.
Instead, EQAT’s strategy is to use direct action to push the electrical utility to invest in solarizing suitable roofs in poor communities of color — a strategy in line with EQAT’s vision of racial, economic and climate justice.
Vision also protects against burn-out. Many activists dwell on what we’re against — white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, war. I’ve known plenty of people who burned out while working against something. A negative posture doesn’t protect against the inevitable hurts and disappointments that go along with justice work. The initiators of the Movement for Black Lives’ vision clearly know that this struggle will go on for a while. Positive vision helps sustain us for the longer run.
Vision also helps by supporting unity. Activists may disagree about this or that tactic, or an organization’s style, but if we agree on our aims, we have reason to “agree to disagree” and accept a diversity that’s uncomfortable. Shared, big-picture goals encourage us to work together.
Vision has been pivotal in some of the most successful mass movements in history. I realize we can draw inspiration from current movements that haven’t yet reached their goals, and even movements that had potential but were tragically defeated. In addition, I am fascinated by movements that were successful in establishing “the big three” — democracy, economic justice and individual freedom.
I’ve been researching success stories of the latter kind, a cluster of movements that started small in the midst of poverty and oppression, and after struggle and sacrifice achieved more of “the big three” than anyone I know. Two of the movements faced repression by their own economic elites, including troops called out and nonviolent demonstrators killed. In two of the countries progress was interrupted by armed invasion and occupation by Nazi Germany, with the setbacks you would expect.
I tell the stories in my new book, “Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too.” There’s a striking parallel between those countries and the platform of the Movement for Black Lives.
Meeting the critics of the Movement for Black Lives
Critics will dismiss the new vision as “idealistic and impractical,” but I meet critics on their own ground by citing the practical superiority of the Scandinavians’ achievements in jobs and justice. The Scandinavians’ policies are like those proposed by the vision of the Movement for Black Lives.
Norway has the lowest rates in Europe of repeat offenders and the least punitive correctional system. Scandinavian police don’t carry guns. People there have free higher education, including trade and professional schools. Pensions and virtually free health care are universal. They have full employment policies and “vocational rehabilitation” for people who need training, just as the Movement for Black Lives demands.
Despite their history of great poverty, the Scandinavians now have almost none. And despite Sweden’s history of ethnic homogeneity, the country has been racially diversifying for the past half century, recently accepting more refugees from Syria per capita than any other country in Europe. Scandinavians I interviewed for my book acknowledged that they have many problems remaining. Still, the fact remains that their decades of struggle pushed the economic elite out of dominance and opened the space to create what economists call the “Nordic economic model.” Their top-of-the-charts achievements were the result of putting in place the kind of vision that is now being urged for the United States by the Movement for Black Lives.
I don’t know if white allies are willing to see the necessity for economic change as part of the struggle for racial justice. Bayard Rustin, the gay black civil rights leader who personally influenced me the most, told me half a century ago that until our country tackled economic justice with what is essentially a socialist program, racism would continue its vicious hold on our country.
Clearly, Rustin was right. He would, I think, be pleased to see a possible convergence happening now: the white youths and people of color resonating with Bernie Sanders joining with the inspiring vision of the Movement for Black Lives, both movements deeply aware of the crisis and opportunity given by climate change.
Now we have tools, resources and knowledge we have not had before in my lifetime. These we can use while seeking unity, as the crisis deepens.
George Lakey has been active in direct action campaigns for over six decades. Recently retired from Swarthmore College, he was first arrested in the civil rights movement and most recently in the climate justice movement. He has facilitated 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national and international levels. His 10 books and many articles reflect his social research into change on community and societal levels. His newest books are “Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too” (2016) and “How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning” (2018.)TAGS: CIVIL RIGHTS, CLIMATE CHANGE, ECONOMIC POLICY, FOSSIL FUELS, MEDIA, POLICE, POVERTY, UNITED STATES
Building our muscles for conflict
The ugly splits that litter the history of movements partly stems from the difficulty of waging healthy internal conflicts before they turn sour and ugly. George Lakey March 19, 2013
I know a student action group that lost some momentum this semester. It was seemingly at cross-purposes and suffering morale problems. The group knew a facilitator near the campus and decided to hold a retreat to clarify their strategy. I ran into a few of the members after the retreat and asked how it went.
“We had so much hard stuff to say to one another,” I heard. “Who knew there were so many pent-up resentments and conflicts?“ And, “We got really honest.”
“What’s the result?” I asked.
Their faces relaxed. “Back on it, now.” And, “We’re united again.” And, “Now we see our direction.”
One of the ironies about activists is that people who are okay with a sit-in at the office of an authority figure or with blocking the street at rush hour are often reluctant to express conflict with one another.
The ugly splits that litter the history of many countries’ movements for justice may partly be caused by this: the difficulty of waging healthy, cleansing and clarifying internal conflicts before they turn sour and ugly. Our troubles with handling internal conflict also plays into the hands of governments that plant informers and trouble-makers in our midst to break us up.
Fortunately, there are also plenty of examples in which groups had fights and came out of them stronger and clearer.
‘We’re here because we’re queer’
In the Movement for a New Society, we consciously worked at becoming conflict-friendly and sometimes found that a fight moved us forward like nothing else could.
One occasion grew from the tension around sexual politics in the early 1970s. In those days, the best that most groups on the left could do with their LGBT members was show some tolerance, but our caucus within the Movement for a New Society wanted to build gay liberation into the core theory of the network. Some of us wrote a book on LGBT theory that drew connections with other forms of oppression and presented a vision of what a sexually free society would look like.
There was an atmosphere of discomfort in the room when the Movement for a Free Society national network meeting’s agenda moved to whether the network should adopt the book as an official publication. A number of conflict-avoiding comments were made, increasing the discomfort. Then someone said, “The trouble with publishing this is that then so many gay people would join us that we’d lose our breadth of membership.”
Silence filled the room while LGBTers sat stunned. Suddenly a heterosexual ally spoke up: “That statement was homophobic!”
Almost as one, the queer caucus rose and stomped out of the room. The co-facilitators suggested that everyone form buzz groups wherever they were to process what was happening for them. An hour of intense work took place, in the larger room and also in the small room where the caucus gathered, while people confronted their own fears and hurt and anger.
The people in the caucus suddenly reappeared at the door, dressed up in miscellaneous hats and scarves and whatever could be found, marching and singing, “We’re here because we’re queer because we’re here because we’re queer!” The shift had happened in both rooms, and it was expressed in the laughter and dancing. The short discussion that followed quickly reached consensus that the book should be published as emerging Movement for a New Society theory.
I’m not sure we could have reached consensus without the sharply stated polarization and the conflict that forced everyone to move to a deeper level. I was grateful that we didn’t have political correctness getting in the way of people voicing their real fears. It was the fight that supported the transformation, and going through it forged the unity that made Movement for a New Society a nonviolent army that had impact far beyond our size.
From chaos to community
The psychologist M. Scott Peck wrote about this dynamic in his book on how groups get stronger, The Different Drum: Community-Making and Peace. He identifies three developmental stages that strong groups go through: “honeymoon” (superficial, polite efforts to join and get the job done), “chaos” (the fighting time, which members try to end by asserting solutions that don’t work) and “community” (also called a high-performance team, which happens when members accept on a deeper level the diversity of who they are).
I have often facilitated for groups as they went through the scary chaos period to reach the other side.
At one point, veteran trainer Starhawk and Training for Change assembled an international group of activist trainers together to consider how we could be more helpful to the mass confrontations that followed the Battle of Seattle in 1999. We met in Starhawk’s attic in San Francisco. Before long, the group went into chaos. I completely forgot Peck’s theory and was as chaotic and clueless as everyone else — until we suddenly stepped through the threshold into community. Then I remembered the theory!
That’s when I realized that the growth that happens in conflict is not fundamentally about ideas and reason. The emotional dimension is key — which is bad news to some, and good news to others. One influence on whether it’s good or bad news has to do with social class.
Class conditioning and conflict
I’ll risk a generalization: Middle and owning class people are more uncomfortable with conflict than working class people. By “middle class,” I don’t mean what politicians mean, because they code the phrase to signify employed working class people. I mean middle managers, teachers, small business owners who have to run their own businesses, professionals including lower-tier doctors and engineers. The economic function of the middle class is to manage, teach, fix and design jobs for the working class.
Why does middle class conditioning include conflict aversion? The economic purpose of middle class people’s socialization is to prepare them for middle class jobs. Do you know a management or teaching job where the way to get ahead is to have a fair amount of turbulence going on among the people you supervise or within your classroom? Middle class jobs emphasize smoothness, rationality, calming the waters, linear progress, appearing “in charge.” That’s the goal of owning class socialization, too. So how can people brought up that way really appreciate — let alone participate in — a good fight?
The couples counselor George Bach wrote a book about the importance of conflict for relationships called The Intimate Enemy. He wrote it after he found that many couples most needed to learn the skill of fighting with each other in order to regain intimacy.
I remember an international, week-long training seminar I led in which the large majority of the 35 participants were people of color. But it was the white people who did most of the talking, until the third day. That was the day I confronted a know-it-all white participant who was trying to dominate the proceedings; he and I had a grand fight which ended with him stalking out of the room and leaving the course.
After a short debriefing with all the participants about what had happened, we went to lunch and convened small breakout groups. I chatted with an education professor from a nearby university who had come to observe my work. She said, “I observe that you have seven small groups going; at this moment in every single one it’s a person of color who’s talking.”
“Right,” I agreed.
“Has it been that way each day?”
“No, it’s been the usual drill of white people hogging the time. What has changed is that we had a fight this morning.”
The professor grew excited. “But that checks out with all the research: After groups have a conflict, the dominance pattern is upended and those previously on the margins speak up! It doesn’t matter what the conflict is about — it can be about the color of the drapes. It’s just that a conflict upsets the prevailing order and those who were playing it safe step up!”
I believe that’s the hidden purpose of the chaos period: to open the space for a new, diversity-friendly order. What lies on the other side is community. This is true whether on a macro scale — revolution, anyone? — or on a micro-scale, in our action groups.
So, to get your group ready for the revolution, find a conflict-friendly facilitator, build your muscles for conflict and watch yourselves become stronger.
George Lakey has been active in direct action campaigns for over six decades. Recently retired from Swarthmore College, he was first arrested in the civil rights movement and most recently in the climate justice movement. He has facilitated 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national and international levels. His 10 books and many articles reflect his social research into change on community and societal levels. His newest books are “Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too” (2016) and “How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning” (2018.)
What the US can learn from Scandinavia in the struggle against inequality
In this interview, George Lakey explains what lessons can be learned from how movements in Scandinavia won and secured their egalitarian economic model. Eric Stoner September 13, 2016
In any social movement, it is important for organizers to have a clear and inspiring vision for the future world that they are working to build. In the struggle against rampant economic inequality in the United States and many parts of the world, no model is held up as a guiding light more often than the one built by Scandinavians. And for good reason.
As Waging Nonviolence columnist George Lakey explains in his new book “Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right — and How We Can, Too,” at the turn of the 20th century the Nordic countries were plagued by poverty and gross inequality. The people then mobilized against their elite and won, after a long and fierce nonviolent struggle — creating space to design and construct some of the most equal, free and democratic societies in the world.
Given the danger that tangible successful alternatives pose, the Nordic model has long been under assault by free-marketeers, who argue that it is not desirable or applicable to the United States. In engaging prose, and with many colorful stories, Lakey systematically debunks the many myths that are propagated to dismiss this compelling alternative, which against all odds has created full employment, universal health care, free education and virtually eliminated poverty.
In this interview, Lakey explains how social movements won and secured these momentous victories over the long haul, and what lessons activists in the United States can take from their example to re-energize their efforts here.
The social movements in Scandinavia in the 1930s were engaged in similar struggles and using comparable tactics to those in the United States at the time. Why do you think they were more successful in establishing an egalitarian system than we were?
The Nordics had advantages given to them by their historical situation, but success didn’t come easily. Most of the privileged resisted change. Troops were called out to repress the movement. Nazi movements grew, putting violent brigades in the streets to attack the movement. In the book, I share dramatic stories of people standing up against fascist aggression.
Here I’ll describe a couple of advantages they had, and also choices the movements made that made them unusually strong. They gave themselves assets that our movements could give ourselves if we want to.
History gave the Nordics several boosts. They were small countries on the periphery of where the main action was in those decades, which meant the stakes weren’t as high for international economic elites as in bigger countries on the continent like France and Germany. Being marginal can be an advantage!
It also helps not to be a rising empire, as the United States was early in the 20th century. In my book, I tell the little-known story of 19th-century Denmark as the last of the Nordics to surrender elite hopes for empire. That surrender gave more breathing room for the Danish majority to assert itself. In the United States, the economic elite was fighting for empire, as well as for internal dominance – high stakes!
The 21st century is very different. The U.S. empire is in decline and has no clear solutions to the problems it is facing (especially the climate crisis). In that way the United States is becoming more like the Nordics of the 1920s and ‘30s, where the economic elites were failing to solve the structural challenges facing them.
Another historical feature that worked for the Nordics in the 1930s was that inequality wasn’t as entrenched there as in the United States, with our centuries of slavery. Our movements were severely hampered by slavery’s legacy and had a hard time resisting the elite’s strategy of divide-and-rule. Fortunately, more Americans are now coming to terms with the enormity of slavery and how it continues to hurt all of us today.
The Nordic history of cultural homogeneity helped them in the 1930s, although it became a hindrance to their economic development. Only recently have the Nordics diversified their population through immigration. Since 1995, the number of immigrants in Iceland doubled, then doubled again, and then doubled again! Sweden opened its doors to Syrians and others fleeing Middle East wars, accepting more per capita than any other country. One in seven Norwegians is foreign-born. In my book, I show how the Nordic economic model helps them to meet the present-day challenges of immigration.
And what choices did the Nordics make to take advantage of these favorable circumstances that movements today might learn from?
Despite their historic advantages, the Nordic movements could have failed if they hadn’t generated additional muscle. They chose to embrace a vision of what they wanted to see. Although there was never complete agreement among activist groups, their vision provided a rough unity that attracted support from people on the sidelines who were hesitant to join, thus building a mass movement. It inspired participants to step up to greater commitment and bolder action.
Their platform, informed by brilliant economists like Gunnar Myrdal, was not fantasy. The vision spread via study groups, movement media and street speaking. By focusing on what they did want instead of what they didn’t, their vision struck a positive tone at a dire time of deep depression and violent attacks. We can expect harder times in this country, and would be smart to fortify ourselves with a tangible platform for support as we lurch from crisis to crisis.
The Nordics strengthened themselves by choosing nonviolent campaigns rather than protests. Protests express a point of view, including outrage, and are the default of many activists around the world. The Nordics were more interested in building power than in simply expressing themselves, and chose nonviolent direct action campaigns to maximize their power. They chose a target, defined one or more demands, and escalated their actions strategically. Multiple campaigns built the movement. Campaigns experienced losses as well as wins, but the overall result was both growth and power.
Because campaigns produce a learning curve, they grew the activists that would one day be able to build the institutions of a new society. Campaign participants became the leadership of the country. The first non-capitalist Danish prime minister had been a factory worker who participated in campaigns and learned leadership skills in the labor movement. The Norwegian prime minister for 17 years in the crucial years of mid-20th century was a construction worker, Einar Gerhardson.
What role do cooperatives play in the Nordic model, and how do you see them fitting into a strategy to roll back economic inequality?
Organizers of coops joined the power of direct action by prefiguring the new economy sketched in the movement’s vision. Coops generate skills and confidence among the previously disempowered. In Denmark and Iceland the cooperative movements were crucial in developing their modern economies. Economist Thorvaldur Gylfason told me that Icelandic coops later in the last century made mistakes that weakened them, but are now making a comeback.
The Swedish coop Folksam represents today’s continued Nordic growth trend. The 106-year-old insurance coop grew by aggressively marketing to immigrants to Sweden, who make up over one in six in the population. Folksam set up a multilingual call center over a decade ago that now handles calls in 17 languages, including Somali, Farsi, Arabic, and Kurdish. Folksam claims the lion’s share of the insurance market in growing immigrant communities.
Over two million Norwegians are coop members, and many of those belong to several coops. Forty percent of the housing in Oslo is cooperative. Virtually the entire dairy industry in Norway and Denmark consists of coops. In addition to economic clout, coops exert power in the Nordic countries by giving daily evidence – despite neo-liberal claims – that cooperation works as well as, and often better than, capitalism.
Public ownership also plays a giant role in Norwegian corporate life. Most major corporations are over 50 percent owned by the public, on a municipal or national level. Norwegians were the only Scandinavians to strike it rich in oil, but when they did, they set up a public company to own and run the operations, setting aside the profits for a public “pension fund” to benefit future generations.
Of course, Norwegians today passionately debate whether to end their fossil fuel extraction. Before the oil wealth became available, Norway had already virtually abolished poverty, so Norwegians’ shared prosperity is not at stake.
How did the movements secure the gains won in the 1930s over the decades that followed?
The Nordic class struggles continue today, with resulting wins and losses. In comparing the outcomes among the four countries, a strategic principle stands out that yields hope for our movements.
Ever since the “Reagan Revolution,” most U.S. progressives have played defense. The result has been a string of losses, and the suffering is immense. Similarly, among the Nordic countries losses came when progressives tried to defend previous achievements. The wins happened when the movement instead went on the offensive and waged nonviolent struggle with bold demands.
In the 1980s, the Swedish and Norwegian governments loosened regulations on banks. Private bankers went wild, speculated on real estate, created a bubble, and both countries headed for the cliff. (Sound familiar?)
The governments woke up, seized the biggest banks, fired the senior management, made sure the stockholders didn’t get a cent, and told other banks they could re-capitalize on their own or go bankrupt; they would not be bailed out by the taxpayers.
The near-collapse hurt the economy of each country, but the decisive nationalization of the big banks plus bold stimulus programs created a faster rebound than we’ve seen in the American and European recoveries after similar bubbles burst in 2008.
In the book, I tell the dramatic story of Iceland’s later financial collapse and how the nonviolent people’s movement forced an even more remarkable rebound than that of their Viking cousins.
Significantly, the Danes dodged that wild-banker bullet. Rather than follow Norway and Sweden and allow the Danish government to move to the right, the labor movement went on the offensive, waging a disruptive strike, blockading parliament, and making bold demands to benefit the majority. By pro-actively defying the European neo-liberal trend, the Danish financial sector remained solid.
How does the struggle for the Nordic model continue today?
The Nordics are the first to say they’ve not achieved utopia. Norwegians tell me they are “a nation of complainers.” The four countries in my book continue to face enormous global market forces, with daily pressures to give up the clearest sustained model of democracy, equality, environmental justice, shared prosperity and individual freedom in history.
I don’t know if the global elite will find the means to stop them from holding up the high standard they’ve achieved. I do know that the Nordics love strategy, and like to learn from each other. They may defy the global elite by choosing to fight by staying on the offensive and waging nonviolence.
Building on the vision projected by the Movement for Black Lives, U.S. movements might also gain the confidence to go on the offensive, wage strategic nonviolent campaigns and build power. Because our objective situation is now in some ways more favorable than in the 1930s, we might surprise ourselves with what we can do.
Eric Stoner is a co-founding editor at Waging Nonviolence and an adjunct professor at Saint Peter’s University, Saint Joseph’s College and Rutgers University. His articles have appeared in The Guardian, Mother Jones, Salon, The Nation, Sojourners and In These Times.
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