The Beauty of “Getting to Norway”

By Nina Witoszek September 7, 2014 4 Comments

In the acclaimed study The Origins of Political Order (2011), Francis Fukuyama describes the project of building an exemplary social democracy – with a generous welfare state, individual rights, and the rule of law – in terms of “getting to Denmark.”[1] For people living in genocidal or troubled parts of the world, Demark has become a mythical place symbolizing democracy, peace, and stability. “Everyone would like to figure out how to transform Somalia, Haiti, Nigeria, Iraq, or Afghanistan into ‘Denmark,’” Fukyama writes – and sets out to answer exactly that very question. He has two conclusions: 1) there is not one route, but many ways of “getting to Denmark,” and 2) studying these routes is a tricky business because it has to include historical accidents and contingent circumstances that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

The pioneering essay “Blueprint for the Global Village,” written by David Sloan Wilson and Dag Hessen, can be placed within the Fukuyama-esque framework of an inquiry into the mainsprings of peaceful, inclusive, and stable democracies. There are, however, three new components in their proposed anatomy of social wonderlands. The first part is shifting focus (rightly) from Denmark to Norway: today the richest and most egalitarian social democracy on the planet. The other, more substantial novelty is a synergic perspective on the mechanisms of Norway’s success: one which draws on a combination of evolutionary biology and the social sciences. The third innovation lies in posing a radical challenge to the world and to Norway itself: the choice is between growing up and becoming an improved – i.e., ecologically enriched – model of existence, or perish.

Sloan Wilson and Hessen’s piece is less the result of full-fledged research and more an intellectual teaser – an invitation to brainstorm the solutions to the current manifold crises, including climate shift – which are tearing the world apart. It is also an adventurous attempt to propose a synergic, interdisciplinary study of a rich society which has succeeded in creating accountable political institutions, a high level of social justice, and avoided the “Dutch disease” by a relatively equal distribution of wealth among its citizens. From Fukuyama’s socio-political perspective, some of the success of welfare states like Norway or Denmark can be explained by such factors as broad peasant literacy during Reformation, early enfranchisement and social mobilization of peasants and workers, no prolonged civil war, no enclosure movement, no absolutist tyranny – and sheer luck. From Sloan Wilson’s evolutionary perspective, Norway can be treated as a template for the global village because it has successfully combated “lower level selfishness” with “higher level welfare.” The signature of small village communities has been cooperation and teamwork, which, according to Sloan Wilson, proves to be more advantageous for a community than sheer rivalry. In short, if Norway has become a social-democratic El Dorado, it is because social control mechanisms functioning in a village community have been successfully projected into a “national village.” Sloan Wilson and Hessen write: “Today, over half the earth’s population resides in cities and the most populous nations teem with billions of people, but groups the size of villages still deserve a special status. They are the social units that we are genetically adapted to live within and they can provide a blueprint for larger social units, including the largest of them all – the global village of nations.” Can Norway provide such a blueprint? Not yet, is Wilson and Hessen’s conclusion. To do so, petroholic Norway would need to stop protecting its own selfish interest at the expense of the common global future. In short, it would need to dramatically reorient its oil economy towards building a more sustainable future based on renewables, and think of the benefits of its legendary oil fund less in terms of Norwegian future generations and more in terms of contributing to the planetary good.

Is this too difficult an agenda? Wilson and Hessen’s propositions are as exciting as they are provocative. The idea of small communities owing a general allegiance to their government – but beyond its effective intrusion – and compelled to rely on their own initiative seems to have worked in many successful countries. Clearly much can be said for it in accounting for the original social circumstances of American democracy. But although the ideal of self-reliance was gradually married to a fiercely competitive ethos in the US, in Norway, it was enriched by a dugnad: a deeply rooted tradition of social cooperation and self-help. Further, it was reinforced by the emergence of a consensual society, in which various political elements among the population accepted systematic methods of compromise in order to avoid majoritarian despotism or a minoritarian plunder. Thirdly, while in the US the state is regarded as a “necessary evil,” in Norway, it enjoys a dramatically high level of social trust, even in the aftermath of the dramatic security failures which enabled Anders Behring Breivik to kill 77 people in the terrorist attack on July 22nd, 2011.

Wilson and Hessen’s emphasis on cooperation as one of the conditions of evolutionary success is certainly a compelling aspect of their analytical framework. As Richard Sennett argues in his bestseller Together (2012), one of the problems of globalization is that it has perverted cooperation in the name of solidarity. Solidarity – the Left’s traditional response to the evils of capitalism – is as attractive as it is illusive. Its perverse power lies in in the “us-against-them” mentality, which is indeed mobilizing but also exclusive and occasionally even aggressive. By contrast, cooperation is a form of interaction which transcends dichotomies and lives with difference in the name of work for the greater good. In most (neo)liberal democracies, social cooperation has been thwarted by the new forms of capitalism, detached from government control – and from responsibilities to others on the ground – especially during times of economic crisis. Norway has not entirely escaped the ravages of this process. But the idea of cooperation – or dugnad thinking – has remained an enduring cultural premise on which much of its political and economic success relies.

For a cultural historian, the begging question in the Wilson-Hessen approach is their implicit idealization – no, not of Norway (here they remain sober) – but of small communities as having an evolutionary advantage over rivalry-driven tribes. Historical experience tells us that small communities are not just about the blessings of dugnad and egalitarianism. They are very often marked by gentle authoritarianism: what the Irish writer Brinsley MacNamara called, “the Valley of the Squinting Windows” syndrome. The village is strong both on cooperation and on inquisition: the squinting, judging eyes that stifle your individuality and creativity. The Norwegians have their own name for this repressive process, coined by Norwegian-Danish writer Axel Sandemose. They talk about Jantelov (The law of Jante), whose first commandment, “thou shalt not think thou are anybody,” suppresses innovation and punishes outliers. The result is that the creative “deviants” move to bigger, more metropolitan communities which allow them to compete and become masters in their field. The logic of cultural advancement is not necessarily compatible with that of biological evolution: something that Wilson is aware of, but seems to glide over.

The second interesting question – and one which certainly needs further research – would be to define if, and which, Norwegian structures and social strategies can be projected onto a global village. It does not seem very plausible that extremely poor or chaotic countries could expect to put into place complex institutions in short order, given how long such institutions took to evolve. Moreover, institutions are underpinned by the cultural values of the societies, and it is not clear if Norway’s political order can take root in very different cultural contexts. Another question which haunts in the background is to what extent a society so close to a social ideal, can survive in the many crises which lie ahead. The unrest in other parts of the world, coupled with the socio-economic decline in Europe and the challenge of climate shift, make Norway, and indeed the rest of Scandinavia, extremely vulnerable to an “evolutionary disruption.” A sceptic would say that sooner or later millions of refugees will be knocking on the doors of the rich Nordics. Will the result be a “Fortress Norway,” the opposite of an inclusive and fair society? And will the intrusion of the other tribes shake the Norwegian model to its foundations?

With these qualifications, the type of research that Wilson and Hessen advance is important and appealing at least for two reasons. Firstly, it aims to overcome the “two cultures” apartheid that has bedeviled the natural and the social/humanist sciences since the nineteenth century. Despite the promotion of interdisciplinary studies, academic disciplines continue to live happily in their own ghettoes – something which has effectively blocked finding solutions to current crises. Such solutions cannot be just technological fixes; they have to be based on solid anthropological and cultural studies and more effective synergy and dialogue between the sciences. The second benefit of Wilson and Hessen’s “template” vision is that it presents humans as innovative actors rather than social and ecological victims, trapped and helpless amid growing injustice and diminishing resources. It gestures towards the work of the Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, who studied forests in Nepal, irrigation systems in Spain, and mountain villages in Switzerland and Indonesia to prove that small communities can counteract the tragedy of the commons by drawing up sensible rules for the use and monitoring of common-pool resources. Ostrom, with whom both Wilson and Hessen have collaborated, has argued that the success of such projects depended on neighbors agreeing to set out clear boundaries and cooperate rather than compete for scarce resources. If such reciprocal and mutual schemes have worked for centuries, it is mainly because they were not imposed from above, but instead by a decentralized structure, where people talked face to face and based their actions on trust.

Ostrom remained sober of the applicability of her model. Smaller institutions, she cautioned, might not work in the same way in every case. As she travelled the world, giving out good and sharp advice, she cried: “No panaceas!” Today’s Norway is an anomaly – rather than a rule – in the world. But is it a panacea? In the past decade, the country has become a fast-changing, increasingly complex society which offers no universal solutions. But it would certainly be fascinating to understand better the manifold – biological, cultural, political and economic – mechanisms which have made it into an example of a “great good place on earth”. The world today does not need any more doomsday stories. It needs inspiration.

[1] The concept of «getting to Denmark» was originally coined by two social scientists at the World Bank, Lant Prichett and Michael Woodcock, in their report “Solutions When Solution is a Problem: Arraying the Disarray in Development” (Washington, D.C.: Center for Global development Paper, 10. 2002).

Published On: September 7, 2014

Nina Witoszek

Nina Witoszek

Professor Nina Witoszek is currently Research Director at the Centre for Development and the Environment at Oslo University. Prior to her work at SUM, she taught comparative cultural history at the National University of Ireland in Galway (1995-1997) and the European University in Florence (1997-1999). She held fellowships at the Swedish Collegium of the Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Uppsala (1993), Robinson College, Cambridge (1995) and Mansfield College, Oxford (2001) and visiting professorship at Stanford University (2010).

Nina Witoszek is also a fiction writer (under the pen name Nina FitzPatrick). She is best known for the infamous collection of short stories, Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia (1991), which won the Irish Times-Aer Lingus Award for fiction in 1991. The prize was subsequently withdrawn when she couldn’t prove her Irish ancestry. Until 2001 her fictional work – including The Loves of Faustyna (1995) and Daimons (2003), as well as several well film scripts – was written together with her late husband Pat Sheeran.

Witoszek is the recipient of the Norwegian Freedom of Expression Foundation (Fritt Ord) Award for “bringing Eastern European perspectives to the public debate in Scandinavia.” In 2006 she was chosen by the Norwegian daily Dagbladet as “one of the 10 most important intellectuals in Norway.”


  • Yavor says:

    Is it possible to get to Norway, and maybe even more importantly staying there, without having Norwegians as your population? I am not convinced ….

    Would Vietnam be able to “get to Jamaica” in terms of world class sprinters per capita? We can imitate historical accidents, policies, even culture, but without the genetic predisposition to fast-twitching muscle fibers it may prove close to impossible barring genetic engineering. I think a fair bit of cooperation and the ability to construct and maintain social institutions is genetic as well….

  • Roger S. says:

    One thing that will help us “Get to Norway” is at least having something to aim at. I don’t know if it’s true but I suspect that the Norwegian economic data, published in Norway, will actually be accurate – a set of figures you’d be proud to take home and introduce to your mother. The importance of this should not be overlooked – a set of straight data is a rare thing, a thing of beauty.

    Compare that to the ghastly state of our own economic data. It takes so long to add back in all the “revisions in the way the amount was previously calculated” (and doing this always flatters the data), it’s quicker to get it from the States – they just won’t tolerate it. If the UK isn’t meeting it’s fiscal targets – tough s**t for the UK. It actually makes their own economy look better, the worse we do.

    This dishonesty is unpleasant, immature and above all expensive. What kind of country lies to itself? But this is now the accepted way of doing things and it’s poisonous. I see the committee on climate change has announced some “revisions” and talk of a “policy gap”. Why not say we aren’t on target and we need to take action?

    I digress, but if we don’t, as a nation, even have the decency to be honest, expecting all those Norwegians to fall on their swords for the “common good” is daft.

    Which of course it is, and it spoils a well reasoned argument.

    “Despite the promotion of interdisciplinary studies, academic disciplines continue to live happily in their own ghettoes”. The tragedy of this is that it doesn’t really matter since there is a complete disconnect between the formation of new ideas and the application of them. How they escape into the real world is a mystery……..

    • guanxi says:

      look to Noway ?
      look closer and beyond the mumbojumbo, read between the lines
      maybe they mean affluenzia ?
      1st world problems ? and/or that only an expert can deal with the problem and/ or it is not a lie if you believe it . It’s the economy silly look to Norway today when the price per barrel is half of what it used to be .still In reality Norway is 5 million people like a small city in the global context. Reality bites i agree Writing is a way of escape and much overrated and inflated just like likes and this 🙂 Just do something and do not expect any ideas to act on from the ivory towers they serving a self serving purpose .goes with the territory unable to act but insists on having the final word

  • guanxi says:

    And insist on status quo

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