Cooperation and confrontation in Norway

I was delighted to recently read a profile of a tiny co-op in Norway on, a site associated with the UN International Year of Cooperatives. Undredal Stølsysteri has six members, one employee, and makes three traditional cheeses with unpasteurized goat milk. When I saw the pictures of goats and cheeses in impressive fjord landscapes it reminded me of my visits to the farm on the Esefjord from which my great-grandfather and namesake emigrated in the 1870s. Turns out that the village of Undredal is just a little way down the great Sognfjord from Ese, just over a two hour circuitous drive through mountain passes.

Norway and Scandinavia as a whole has a well-deserved reputation for cooperation and social solidarity. The rich aren't all that rich, the poor barely exist, and health care and higher education are available to all. The Upper Midwest owes its strong cooperative sector partly to the influence of its large Scandinavian-American population, who formed the backbone of Minnesota's pro-co-op Farmer-Labor Party in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

But Scandinavia wasn't always as egalitarian as it is today, and it didn't get this way by making artisanal cheese (not to say there is ANYTHING wrong with making artisanal cheese!). As outlined in George Lakey’s recent article on AlterNet, the Norwegian and Swedish grassroots carried out  massive nonviolent struggles for social justice at the same time their cousins were organizing in Minnesota. Both movements chose a different road from the Bolshevik model that had prestige at the time:

When workers formed unions in the early 1900s, they generally turned to Marxism, organizing for revolution as well as immediate gains. They were overjoyed by the overthrow of the czar in Russia, and the Norwegian Labor Party joined the Communist International organized by Lenin. Labor didn’t stay long, however. One way in which most Norwegians parted ways with Leninist strategy was on the role of violence: Norwegians wanted to win their revolution through collective nonviolent struggle, along with establishing co-ops and using the electoral arena.

The Norwegian movement had a four-part strategy to gain self-determination and fight the power of the traditional elite: A protest movement in the streets, a working class-based party in the electoral realm, assertive unions in the capitalist economy and forming cooperatives to grow the populist economy. Of course, their nonviolent strategy did not prevent violence by their opponents. They faced suppression at the hands of the police and the military, as well as intimidation by the Patriotic League, an ownership-class-backed organization (which had its parallel in the Citizens Alliance in Minnesota).

With the shrinkage of the traditional working class in the US, class dynamics have shifted somewhat, but the basic power imbalance between the ownership class and the rest of us (the 99%?) remains. There has been certainly been collaboration between street protestors, unions, some people in electoral politics and many members of co-ops, but there could certainly be more. Co-ops, most of which were founded as part of larger political movements, have largely become carefully “non-political,” at least when those politics involve the United States. There are good reasons for this, and co-ops would run risks by becoming more identified with one “side” in our contentious political climate. Also, American unions have only been intermittently interested in the cooperative movement, although the recent partnership between the Steelworkers and the Mondragon Co-ops of Spain is encouraging.

Discussing the possibilities of such a broad-based movement for grassroots democracy is, for me, the central purpose of The Cooperative Society.  Anyone out there with a vision? An encouraging anecdote? A useful piece of info to start us off?

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ErikEsse's picture
Erik Esse

Erik Esse is co-founder of the blog The Cooperative Society, which focuses on cooperative approaches to politics and economics.