Some reflections on Denmark that I wrote while still in country, nearing the end of yet another wonderful concert tour of this remarkable place.
I had only been on the ground in Denmark for 36 hours before I was singing at a protest. People had only started organizing the protest the day before, because the head of the nurses' union was going to be negotiating with the heads of the government bureau responsible for trying to settle a labor dispute. The nurses are engaging in a months-long rolling strike action, trying to pressure the various powers-that-be that nurses' pay scale should be more equitable, along the lines of other professions requiring similar levels of education that are less dominated by women, where the pay is higher.
As soon as I saw any of my friends outside of the labor movement, I was immediately hearing all about the new Ghetto Laws here in Denmark, under which families may be more or less involuntarily relocated from housing complexes that have too high a concentration of non-Danes in them, and moved to other neighborhoods. And there is a much talk of a new rightwing party that's even more xenophobic than the other rightwing party.
So that is all just to say that Denmark has problems, and most of the people I know in Denmark are actively involved with trying to do something about them.
Having said that, most of what I see when I experience Denmark are solutions.
Before I get into some of my observations about how the Danes do most things better than most when it comes to the maintenance of a functional society, three points:
One, for folks in the US thinking that emulating the Danish political model would be a great step forward, I agree, but in order to even think about that kind of strategy, we'd need multiparty democracy first. I think it's nonetheless useful to note how things can be done differently.
Secondly, for all of the radical naysayers who are apt to dismiss the achievements of what is often referred to as social democracy, because it hasn't gone far enough, or because it's not significantly different enough from unbridled, American-style capitalism, I don't know how to say this nicely, these people are profoundly ignorant. The differences are vast, and important to understand, if we are to have a future, it seems to me. If there is to be a next step in terms of any kind of progress within the US towards a more equal society, it will probably lie with moving in the direction of social democracy, a la the kind of changes frequently talked about by people like Bernie Sanders and AOC.
Third, to those who are apt to dismiss Danish success as easily explained by the country's history of profiting from the slave trade and other aspects of unequal global relations including colonialism, or for those who might dismiss Denmark's achievements because it's a small country, or for any number of other reasons: I can find other countries in which there is vast wealth, and where the country is small, and has benefited from colonialism, where poverty and inequality are big problems today, even if they may not be as bad as in the US or other countries. Any number of countries can have all of these things, but what distinguishes countries like Denmark from the others is the capacity to distribute that wealth so that it effectively reaches something approximating the whole of the society.
Without getting into any attempts at a history lesson on the origins of the Danish parliamentary system -- that would, if I did, belie my ignorance on the subject -- I'll just focus on a few things that I've personally observed. Just for introductory purposes for those who don't know, I'm a touring musician, and I've toured and otherwise spent probably an average of a month out of every year in Denmark for most of the past 20 years, very actively participating in Danish society, I think it would be fair to say, when I'm in country.
I'm currently on my first tour of any country since the pandemic hit, and I cut short a tour of Australia in March 2020 to come back home. I haven't seen anyone wearing a mask since I left Copenhagen airport, 11 days ago. The delta variant has been spreading for two months here, but since almost everyone is vaccinated, proof of vaccination is required if you want to eat inside a restaurant or hang out in a cafe, and all visitors to the country are also vaccinated in order to gain entry, there has not been a significant rise in hospitalizations. There doesn't seem to be any contact tracing going on, there's the assumption that the virus will spread and it'll be OK at this point, with most everyone vaccinated, with the restrictions on visitors, and with the corona pass system in place. And as with everything else Denmark has done during the pandemic, it's working.
In the US, the hospitals are overflowing, vital surgeries are being postponed, and our average lifespan has declined dramatically. Meanwhile, there's nothing predictable about the prices of anything, from houses to rental cars. Taking the specific example of rental cars, US rental car companies sold much of their fleets during the pandemic, so they could remain solvent, with so few customers, and prices these days are many times normal. In Denmark, the whole economy was basically frozen by law, and as it is now thawing, the results of the practice is that everything can now very quickly get back to normal. The car I rented at the airport was the same price as usual in years past.
Despite the prevalence of disinformation platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube being as popular in Denmark as anywhere else that doesn't have the good sense to ban them, the anti-vaccine movement and anti-lockdown movement in Denmark never grew to the proportions of such movements in the US, Germany, France and elsewhere. But unlike those aforementioned countries, in Denmark most people have a well-founded reason to trust the government on matters of public health and safety.
In Denmark, if anyone jaywalks, they're usually either a foreigner or an antisocial type. The overwhelming majority of Danes would never do that. This is also true in Germany and some other countries. Americans and Brits and others visiting from abroad tend to make typically American and British individualistic, antisocial assumptions about this conformist behavior. They see a crowd of Germans or Danes standing at a crosswalk, waiting for the "walk" signal, even if there's no traffic in any direction, and they see something scary, from Children of the Corn or some other horror movie, a bunch of zombies who can't think for themselves, or are afraid of getting a ticket.
By contrast, what the average Dane or German sees when they visit London or New York City are pedestrians with no regard for their or their children's well-being, who seem to think crossing the street five seconds sooner than they might have if they had waited for the "walk" sign is fully worth risking their family's lives to do. They think we're nuts. I do, too, but it took me years to figure it out. In retrospect, I don't understand why it took that long.
What the Danes have that we tend to lack, achieved through some combination of cultural norms, political representation, and generations of an educational system geared towards the happiness of children as well as their academic prowess, is a society that believes in society.
A mock interview with your Average Dane could go something like this:
"Do you ever jaywalk?"
"No, because all the children need to learn about how the signals work, for their safety."
"Do you believe in universal healthcare?"
"Of course. If we didn't have universal healthcare, then some people wouldn't have healthcare. Then when they get sick, they would make other people sick. So it's better for all of society if we all have healthcare."
"Do you believe in sending babies to daycare fulltime?"
"Yes, because it's very important for children to have time together, and to learn how to get along with each other."
"Do you support the corona pass?"
"Of course. It's a simple way to minimize spread of the virus, so it's good for society."
When many people from the more individualism-influenced parts of the world think of the idea of putting the group first, they may imagine a dystopian fictional collective where people are punished for doing anything better than anyone else, or they may think of an individual sacrificing themselves in battle for the good of their fighting unit. They're less likely to think of a society where the rights of the individual and the health of the collective are both considered important, and there's relatively little drama as a result.
Partially because I'm coming from such a politically and socially fractured landscape -- the United States -- and also because of the nature of the concert tour I'm doing here in Denmark right now, the political party known as Enhedslisten, or the Unity List, is particularly on my mind. While whatever remains of the left in the US seems largely to be occupied with shouting at the right or shouting at each other, in Denmark, Enhedslisten is now the third-biggest political party, and certainly the most left.
The founding story of Enhedslisten is not unique, but it's very rare. In the wake of the seismic political changes gripping much of the world in the early 1990's with the collapse of the Soviet Union, all of the major Marxist-oriented political parties came together to form an alliance, and it has been slowly growing ever since. As it grows, it invests in physical and cultural infrastructure -- using the party's buildings across the country for meetings and events, sponsoring youth groups and helping them flourish, organizing camps and conferences.
The man I first knew as a union representative has now been serving in the Danish parliament for eight years. Year after year, coming to Denmark and playing for new crops of leftwing youth and older folks, I have known more than a few kids to grow up to become elected representatives in the very youthful field of Enhedslisten city council members and other elected officials across the country.
Enhedslisten is creating and maintaining a political and social environment, as well as serving as a major political party. My tours end up being one small component in maintaining this culture. No decisions on the part of party leadership is necessary for this to happen. It's a grassroots affair, where those inclined to organize a show still have to do the work that that entails, like anywhere, but they often will have easy access to necessary funds and physical space to put on a concert or whatever else.
Meanwhile in places like the US, if a group forms that wants to grow and organize events, it faces the constant struggle of having some kind of physical spaces to use, and finding any kind of budget for doing anything. Without sustainable infrastructure in different forms, groups tend to perish quickly. They may create a vibrant culture around them, as, say, Occupy Wall Street or many other movements did, but it's a culture that will live and die all within a couple years, for most people. But when a movement has buildings and budgets and vision, rather than tents and police violence to go with that vision, something much more sustainable and perhaps even self-propelling can be created.
It would be hard to overemphasize some of the negative aspects, not of Enhedslisten, but of most or all of the other political parties in Denmark, when it comes to questions like whether to deport refugees back to war zones, or whether to participate in NATO's wars. But it's easy to see how, in a country that is capable of deftly skating through a terrible global pandemic and of giving birth to a lasting alliance between all of the major left factions, it's possible to have the atmosphere of optimism that I find to be present all over this little country. It's not an effervescent kind of optimism, generally -- these are reserved people, for the most part. But it's real, and it's the kind of optimism that comes with having had a good taste of victory already -- the victory of still living in a society that believes in society, whatever its shortcomings may be.