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The Danish Dilemma

Pelle Dragsted

Denmark is one of the few European states to elect a social-democratic government in recent years – but its mix of progressive economics and anti-immigrant policies offers a stark warning about the years ahead.

Interview by
Joe Bilsborough

Pelle Dragsted—a Danish writer, activist, and former MP for Enhedslisten, Denmark’s democratic socialist party—recently published Nordisk Socialisme (Nordic Socialism), a book which utilises Denmark’s experiences to develop a critical analysis and reinterpretation of left strategy. Dragsted argues that a dogmatic insistence that contemporary societies are entirely colonised by capitalism both forecloses political possibilities for the Left and obscures the impact that institutions such as worker-owned co-operatives and the non-marketised public sector continue to have. His theoretical and strategic analysis is built upon through a suggested series of reforms that could pave the way to a far more democratised economy.

In this second part of our two-part interview series, he speaks to Tribune columnist Joe Bilsborough about the contemporary conjuncture in which Denmark finds itself, the impact and influence of the Corbyn and Sanders movements on his thinking, Denmark’s democratic lineage—including the mosaic of cooperatives which still hold significant sway in the economy—and the historic failures of social democracy to grapple with the importance of ownership.


It would be interesting to situate your book within the contemporary moment of Danish politics, which is something of a strange one. There’s a tendency in parts of the British press to go on about how Denmark is the most perfect country in the world, without interrogating things further, so I’m keen to get into the nuances of this moment and some of its contradictions.

To set the scene, Denmark has had, since 2019, a social democratic government in coalition with a number of left and centre-left parties. On the one hand, they’ve moved quite a lot to the left of previous social democratic-run governments. For example, there’s been an openness to engaging with some of Enhedslisten’s ideas about democratic ownership, as covered previously in Tribune.

But they’ve also moved quite far to the right when it comes to immigration, progressing rather xenophobic policies. I was wondering if you could describe and offer some analysis of the particular moment that we’re in in Danish politics.


I think you describe it well. We’re living in a complicated and troubling political situation right now in the Danish left because, on the one hand, as you said, the current social democratic government has made a turn to the left on economic issues compared to the last few decades of neoliberalism. For the first time in years, workers have experienced getting new rights, and there have also been some initiatives limiting capitalist power like passing laws against Blackstone’s mode of speculation and making interventions against payday lending. We’ve also seen two national budgets negotiated with my party and the rest of the left that have made some very positive improvement in our welfare services.

On top of this, during the pandemic, we have also seen a progressive politics securing all workers full salary while being sent home, and also helping small businesses and the unemployed. So it’s a totally different way of dealing with the crisis than when, during the financial crisis, thousands and thousands of workers were sent home without pay and new attacks were made on Denmark’s unemployment insurance system and social security.

In a way, then, there are some grounds for optimism. But at the same time, the government has continued its drift to the right on the issue of migration. Just in the last couple of months, they have made it far more difficult to get citizenship. Denmark has become the only country in Europe trying to repatriate Syrian refugees to the Assad dictatorship. Besides these concrete measures, they are also advancing a symbolic rhetoric. Every month, they make some kind of crazy attack on refugees and talk about how they are creating insecurity in the streets.

This is putting my party and the left-wing parties in a very difficult situation. Right now, a lot of our constituencies are asking how we can be part of the coalition or support this government. And we’re trying to explain that we’re voting against all this – they’re using their majority with the right-wing, and we’re fighting it in parliament, in the streets, and in campaigns. But there’s a lot of frustration, and if the government continues to constantly tighten the rules, I think the tension between the government and Enhedslisten will be rising.

It could end in early elections if the government continues in that direction. The question is what will happen then. And the most plausible outcome could be some kind of formation of a grand coalition—or the social democrats and the right-wing parties—and, of course, if that happened, it would probably block further improvement for workers, because the right-wing parties will block it, and then the drift to the right on migration politics will be even worse.

So it’s kind of a catch-22 right now for the Left, and we are seriously discussing how to deal with it. The problem, of course, is that it’s not just the majority in the parliament that’s supporting these harsh measures on migration, it’s also a majority in the population. That’s our problem.

If they just keep on going in that direction, I think the pressure on our party will continue to grow from political movements, and from our members, and from our constituencies, and then it could end in a confrontation. But I really hope not, because I think this wouldn’t be good for any of us – including the social democratic government.

If I were the social democratic government, I would think seriously about what they’re doing right now. They have the possibility of forming a quite robust alliance, a coalition with our party and other left-wing parties, that could last maybe for ten years, and really change some power structures in Danish society – but if they continue like this, tension will grow. And what we have learned from the last couple of governments in Denmark—which only lasted one parliamentary term—is that when a government has constant warfare with their coalition partners, they lose the next election.

But I don’t know if this kind of thinking is being done at the top of the social democratic party. I’m a bit worried right now about how things are developing, and it would be really damaging if this ended up in the formation of a coalition between the social democrats and the Right. On the other hand, of course, that would leave quite a space for the left-wing parties to be real opposition, and maybe grow in strength.


There’s an interesting relation here with the thesis of your book. My reading of what the social democrats are trying to do is to advance a politics of tryghed (protection). But I think that the more enduring strategy is to give people actual democratic power over their lives, rather than the state trying to ‘protect’ them.


Yeah. The crazy thing is that this growing attention to issues of migration, integration and all these kinds of questions, is somewhat delinked from reality – because in reality, things are going quite well in Denmark. The refugees coming here, a greater and greater proportion of them, are working and getting good educations; crime is going down. So this discussion is creating a phantom that doesn’t exist.

But the issues of racism and migration have dominated Denmark’s political sphere for many years, so it’s really a potent tool for all parties. I think the social democrats are really scared that if they don’t seem tough on migration, they will lose power in the next election – but I think that danger is exaggerated.

A good friend of mine and, as I see it, one of the most important left thinkers in the Nordic countries, Magnus Marsdal, from Norway, wrote a book maybe ten years ago called Frp-koden. It was a book trying to find answers as to why so many workers voted for the far-right racist party Fremskrittspartiet in Norway. He used a lot of data, but also lived with families for quite a long time that had moved from the Norwegian Labour Party or other left-wing parties to this right-wing, anti-immigration party.

His thesis was more or less the following: the reason that the politics of immigration has taken the central stage was a lack of differentiation on economic policies. During neoliberalism, generations have had the experience that it doesn’t make any difference if they vote for a Labour government or a right-wing government: the same social cuts continue, attacks on social security continue, inequality rises. That means other issues become centre-stage.

His point was in asking what questions and what issues make the difference for people politically. I think this is quite a sharp analysis, and I think maybe also the first years of the Corbyn experience reinforced this – not by moving to the right on these questions, but by moving the football to the part of the playing field where the Left is strong and has good answers, leaving voters thinking, ‘maybe we don’t agree closely on their migration politics, but they’ll give my children free education.’

In Denmark, the social democrats have done both things. They have moved to the left, to try to offer an alternative to right-wing economic policies. But at the same time, they have also moved to the right to triangulate on the migration issue. The truth is that we don’t know if they could have won power only by moving to the left on economic issues. We know that they succeeded in getting a lot of the voters from the far-right parties to change and vote for them instead, but we don’t know the reasons why. So that’s a tough question.

I know that Magnus Marsdal is publishing a new book, following up on the old one and discussing the experiences in the Scandinavian countries of how to deal with right-wing populist parties, because we have done it in very different ways. In Sweden, they have blocked the Sverigedemokraterna (Swedish Democrats), attempting to totally isolate them in the parliament. Now this blockade is breaking down because some of the right-wing parties are changing their attitude, but for many years in Sweden, they just said, ‘They are fascist, we won’t work with them.’

In Denmark, the social democrats have taken over the ideas of the right-wing, but the issue is that we haven’t succeeded in getting rid of the situation in which migration takes centre-stage. In Sweden, Sverigedemokraterna have grown. In Denmark, we now have a social democratic government, but they’re continuing more or less the same anti-migration policies. So you shouldn’t look to the Nordic countries in order to learn how to fight right-wing populists – we’ve done it in different ways, but none of them have really succeeded. That’s the sad truth.


It’s interesting that in your answer you mentioned the Corbyn strategy. One of the things that was quite interesting for me, reading your book, is the influence that some of the thinkers and the activists involved with both the Corbyn and the Sanders campaigns have had on your thinking. I’m thinking of people like Joe Guinan and Thomas Hanna—who I used to work with—Mat Lawrence, Grace Blakeley, Christine Berry, and many more besides. I’m curious as to how much of an impact the Corbyn/Sanders movements—and the accompanying work on democratic economics—had in Denmark?


From our perspective, it goes more like this: the Corbyn and Sanders movements have been a gift to the Left on an international scale, because, as I see it, the certain sense that it was actually possible to take power forced some of the most brilliant part of the British and American left—or young left—to think really hard about what to do with that power, if they succeeded.

You know, my generation—I’m 46, so I can’t call myself young anymore—was encased in a very academic, postmodern, and Negri-ist approach; others in more Trotskyist, ‘waiting-for-the-general-strike’ strategy. This new generation were prompted to—forced to—develop real plans on how to take the first step towards a more socialist economy. These are radical people, a lot of them have a history in activist backgrounds, and suddenly they were part of a coalition that could win power.

What’s interesting for me is that in the search for alternatives, among other experiences, they looked to the Nordic countries. Three or four years ago, if you listened to left podcasts from the UK or the US, you would almost inevitably hear about the Swedish labour economist, Rudolf Meidner, a person that very few Scandinavians would have had knowledge of at that time. Think tanks like Common Wealth and the Democracy Collaborative, among others, have issued really brilliant reports and analysis, and developed ideas. For example, my ideas for new ownership funds are inspired by these ideas that eventually were adopted by McDonnell in the UK and by Bernie Sanders in the US.

Speaking more broadly, Bernie Sanders and AOC have also pointed to the Nordic model as an inspiration for their kind of democratic socialism. This perspective—from the outside of Scandinavia, looking at our history in the Nordics—in some ways has led me to a reappraisal of some of the specific experiences of the Nordic economies – to a recognition that actually there are some elements in our economy that could constitute some of the first building blocks in a democratic and socialist economy.

It’s a weird circle. I have been very inspired by some of the really lucid ideas of reforms brought forward by comrades like Joe Guinan and Thomas Hanna, Grace Blakeley, Mat Lawrence, all the ones that you mentioned – I think they have done really valuable work to make socialist ideas concrete and understandable.

This kind of curiosity—instead of this dogmatism that has been a plague to the Left for decades—is what I really like about the new ‘transatlantic left’: a challenging of old binaries of reform and revolution. As you see in my book, a lot of what I do is trying to challenge a lot of the binary sets that are so defining in left-wing thinking and have been for decades.


The point you made when you were speaking just there is that, to some extent, when one is faced with the proposition of—in the UK context, for example—running the sixth biggest economy in the world, there is a need to think seriously about state strategy. Sticking, briefly, on this topic, what was your analysis, looking at the Sanders candidacy and the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, of why these movements ultimately failed?


I don’t think I have the capacity or the knowledge to lecture to my British and American friends about what they could have done differently. I think you did good, but centring class struggle is hard – it’s not like it’s easy to win. Centring the politics of class without neglecting other issues, bringing forward concrete reform proposals, not just pie-in-the-sky slogans, and maybe most impressively, from a Danish point of view, building really strong movements: I think that you should be proud of that experience.

Even though it was a bitter defeat, it has shown us that the Left could go from the political margins to the centre-stage of politics. I started being an activist around ’89 and have been politically engaged since then, and for the first time, I feel really optimistic about our possibilities – not least because of the Corbyn movement and the Sanders movement, but then also, of course, Podemos and other experiences.

The Left has made a giant leap in the last couple of years. I understand that a lot of people in the UK are frustrated, but really you advanced so much in so few years, and you should be proud, and you should take those experiences and bring them forward and learn from them – because, of course, there were failures and things that we could have done better.

Basically, you did the right thing leaving behind a dogmatic and maximalist approach and trying to combine real radical ideas about radical change, but without the kind of dogmatic, or uniform, or schematic, ideas of how to move society and the economy in a socialist direction.


I think it’s a good moment now to bring things back to Denmark. One thing we didn’t really have were the institutions that Denmark does have – and that the Nordic states more broadly do have. It would be really great to hear about the history, the strength, and the development of these institutions of the Left that are outside of parliament.


If we look at our cooperative movement, an interesting thing is that it did not emerge from the workers’ movement in Denmark, but from the farmers – so, the peasantry. Denmark was a farmers’ economy until the middle of the twentieth century. In the eighteenth century, following—among others—the ideas of Grundtvig, the farmers started to organise. They created new cultural institutions, such as folkehøjskole (folk high schools).

And soon they began also to form cooperatives – in dairies, slaughterhouses, and later, other kinds of enterprises: export companies, producing fertiliser, egg production, fur, and so on; such that, eventually, every town had its own cooperative grocery store.

Even though this movement was linked more to the liberal farmers’ party, it was very vocally anti-capitalist, and very clear about the value of democratic cooperative ownership. They were in a lot of serious competition with the capitalist sector. For example, some of the biggest Danish capitalists had a cement factory. The cooperative movement created another one, and they outcompeted the capitalists in a lot of sectors.

Later, the workers’ movement created their own cooperative movement, not least in the housing sector, where they, with government support, created a really significant decommodified housing sector that we still have in Denmark. Even in the financial sector, the cooperative sector was dominant for many years – with credit unions, but also in the provision of mortgages.

For example, until 1989, all mortgages were non-profit in Denmark. There was not a single person earning money from mortgages. It was cooperative-owned. Then, during those years of neoliberal fervour, they sold a lot of it out. We still have some cooperative-owned financial institutions, but this is really a sad story about our financial sector being colonised by capitalist ownership.

Up to the 1970s, the cooperative movement did constitute an important part of the economy. And in my book, I criticise the revolutionary left, and also the social democratic left, for not acknowledging this, you might call it ‘non-capitalist’, sector in the economy. And I lay some of the responsibility with us for the demise of a part of this movement.

But what’s important is that the experience also shows that we can create democratic economic enterprises, and that we are able to colonise the important parts of the economy with democratic forms of ownership. In other words, the scope of capitalist ownership isn’t fixed. With the support from some left governments, we have been and are able to colonise, or recolonise, and re-democratise, sectors of the economy, not least the financial sector.

This is a really important experience, because it shows us that this idea of socialism or socialist ownership as something that happens after a big revolution makes it distant, and it’s hard to convince people of a totally new system, with new institutions, and new forms of ownership. In contrast here we have the idea that socialism, or socialist experiences, or at least democratic economic experiences, exist in our society: it’s a way of showing that it’s doable. It’s possible. These companies can be effective.

That’s why I dedicate a great deal of time in the book to the history of our cooperative movement. But, of course, it’s not only the cooperative movement: it’s also our public sector. In Denmark, one in every three people works in the public sector.

So, of course, we can call ourselves a capitalist country, but one in three of us is working for the common community – we are not selling our labour to capitalists. When we exchange the commodity—in other words, the services that we are producing in the public sector—it’s not a market transaction. It’s more akin to the socialist idea of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. That’s basically the idea of how our welfare sector works in the Nordics.


By way of closing, it would be interesting to discuss the history of social democracy and how it relates to democratic ownership. The Meidner Plan, which you have mentioned, has come back into interest. A story I love, albeit in a rather ironic way, is the fact that ABBA played a concert opposing this scheme. This encapsulates some of the quite fascinating class divides that were created, and the way there was a concerted turn against the social democratic movements as they were reaching their zenith – which of course precipitated their subsequent collapse.

At the end of the ‘70s, there’s this big moment of rupture: the UK gets Thatcher; soon after, the US gets Reagan; there’s reform and opening up in China. That’s the global picture; it would be interesting to hear about the Danish picture in this context.


In some sense, you could say that the history of social democracy in the Nordics is a history of success, as well as of failure. It’s hard to deny that, from the 1930s and onwards, the social democratic governments revolutionised the lives of the working class. The levels of redistribution, the degree of decommodification, and the levels of union power in that period are among the highest ever in the Western world.

But in a way, that success also led to failure, because the social democrats believed that the social compromise they made with the capitalists, this class compromise, could endure forever. A social democrat minister famously stated in a discussion around corporate ownership: ‘Why slaughter the goose that lays golden eggs?’ In other words: let the capitalists create wealth, and then we redistribute it afterwards.

But this class compromise was dependent on specific preconditions: high growth rates that made it possible to lift the working class, without reducing profits; the threat from a more radical left in the workers movement, among other factors. When the oil crisis hit, the capitalist class terminated the compromise. And, crucially, they had maintained the power to do this, because the social democrats had neglected the question of ownership – and hence economic power.

This provides a really important lesson – it’s a very important experience in the history of social democracy. That could be my most important message: that when the Left has power and governs, we need to use this power to democratise ownership and to strip the capitalist class of as much of its coercive power as possible – not just redistribute, but pre-distribute, and change patterns of ownership and demand. In short, decommodify.

Yes, there were certain people in the social democratic movements at that time that acknowledged that – Rudolf Meidner is one of them. In fact, the plan for ‘fund socialism’ that was presented by the Danish Trade Union Confederation, called economic democracy or ‘Økonomisk Demokrati’, was even more radical than the Meidner plan: it placed more power with the workers. Had the plan been implemented, workers would have majority owners of all major companies in Denmark by around 1995.

It was a radical plan – but it didn’t succeed as it did in in Sweden, where they had the strength to carry the proposal forward. That’s in part because the revolutionary left in Denmark at the time were very critical of it. I don’t think that was the proudest moment for my part of the Left.


This period and that history remains crucial and fascinating. There are so many parallels, like those you have spoken about, from that critical moment in time: in the British context, figures such as Tony Benn, work around the ‘alternative economic strategy’, rich thinking seeking to answer these questions: how do you democratise the economy? And how do you change the structure of British capitalism when it’s in a moment of stagnation? In hindsight, it feels like these were the options: you either go down the democratising road, or you go the neoliberal road. And we know which road we went down.

In closing this interview, it’s worth stressing that what is so valuable, in part, about your book is the way it brings together these histories, and these ambitious plans, with something that is really contemporary. Bringing forward the old analysis and experiences while updating and modifying our thinking for the contemporary moment, I think, is one of the things that makes it so valuable.


Thank you so much. I really hope that it can contribute in some way to discussion.

This is the second article in a two-part interview with Pelle Dragsted. The first part can be read here.

About the Author

Pelle Dragsted is a Danish writer, activist, and former MP for Enhedslisten, Denmark’s democratic socialist party. He is the author of Nordic Socialism.

About the Interviewer

Joe Bilsborough is a Tribune columnist. He is also a research assistant in economic history at the University of Southern Denmark.