Nordic Socialism During and After the COVID-19 Crisis

Duroyan Fertl

On 27 May, the Copenhagen-based Democracy in Europe Organisation (DEO), together with the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels Office, hosted a debate with Pelle Dragsted, former MP for Danish left-wing party Enhedslisten and author of the new book Nordisk socialisme: På vej mod en demokratisk økonomi (‘Nordic Socialism: Towards an economic democracy’).

The past year-and-a-half has been extraordinary. The global coronavirus pandemic has caused millions of deaths and triggered an economic crisis on a scale not seen in generations. 

This crisis has exposed shortcomings in the neoliberal economic model, particularly in areas such as health and social services, as well as in overall economic democracy—weaknesses that could also serve as an opportunity for a more just, socially-oriented recovery. 

The challenge, however, is how the left can use the current crisis to push for the democratisation and redistribution of ownership, and secure greater economic democracy.

In his contribution, Dragsted argues for some profound rethinking in the left’s approach to these issues, and to the idea of socialism. It is not enough, he argues, to focus simply on the retribution of wealth—instead, the whole idea of economic ownership needs to be rethought. 

Dragsted also insists that we should put aside the dream of socialism as a distant “utopia” as well as ideas of great revolutionary ruptures. 

For Dragsted, while capitalism is inherently unjust, it is not a fully totalising system, and elements of socialism have long co-existed within the capitalist economy—from cooperatives to works councils and the public sector. This means we do not have to create it from scratch—we already have a foundation to build on.

Dragsted points to numerous concrete examples from Danish society and economy today, such as mutual banks and worker-run pension funds, and the fact that a third of the working population is employed by the public sector. He draws on ideas from the past, too, such as the Economic Democracy policies debated in Sweden during the 1970s. 

Denmark also has a strong tradition of cooperatives—from farming to factories, housing to supermarkets. Around 17 percent of the population lives in cooperative public housing, in addition to the extensive private cooperative housing sector. This means greater community control, allowing housing to be run more democratically, for need rather than for profit.

Dragsted argues that the left should focus on building up these elements, expanding them and gradually placing democratic control over the economy in the hands of the majority. Importantly, he emphasises the need for concrete proposals, whether to address social need, economic democracy, the COVID-19 crisis, or the challenge of climate change, so as to convert socialism from a utopian ideal into something tangible for people’s everyday lives. 

He finishes his book with a list of 10 concrete reforms that could be carried out today with little difficulty—provided there is the political will.

Dragsted’s proposals have ignited a public debate in Denmark, and elsewhere, over what “socialism” means, and how it might be achieved, if we can convince people that a different, more equitable and democratic, economy is possible.

This is the first in a series of eight online debate meetings throughout 2021, addressing the COVID-19 economic crisis and mapping dilemmas, opportunities and strategies for the left. The meetings are a collaboration between DEO, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels Office and three left-wing parties: Enhedslisten (Denmark), Vänsterpartiet (Sweden) and DIE LINKE (Germany).

About the author

Duroyan Fertl is a former political advisor for Sinn Féin and the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) in the European Parliament. He is currently Nordic Countries Coordinator for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Brussels Office.