[Marxism] Denmark's democratic socialism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Feb 19 06:47:11 MST 2016

"I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and 
Norway and learn what they have accomplished for their working people."

--Bernie Sanders

Liberal, Harsh Denmark
NY Review of Books, MARCH 10, 2016 ISSUE
by Hugh Eakin


In country after country across Europe, the Syrian refugee crisis has 
put intense pressure on the political establishment. In Poland, voters 
have brought to power a right-wing party whose leader, Jarosław 
Kaczyński, warns that migrants are bringing “dangerous diseases” and 
“various types of parasites” to Europe; in France, in December, only a 
last-minute alliance between the Socialists and the conservatives 
prevented the far-right National Front from triumphing in regional 
elections. Even Germany, which took in more than a million 
asylum-seekers in 2015, has been forced to pull back in the face of a 
growing revolt from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own party and the recent 
New Year’s attacks on women in Cologne, allegedly by groups of men of 
North African origin.

And then there is Denmark. A small, wealthy Scandinavian democracy of 
5.6 million people, it is according to most measures one of the most 
open and egalitarian countries in the world. It has the highest income 
equality and one of the lowest poverty rates of any Western nation. 
Known for its nearly carbon-neutral cities, its free health care and 
university education for all, its bus drivers who are paid like 
accountants, its robust defense of gay rights and social freedoms, and 
its vigorous culture of social and political debate, the country has 
long been envied as a social-democratic success, a place where the state 
has an improbably durable record of doing good. Danish leaders also have 
a history of protecting religious minorities: the country was unique in 
Nazi-occupied Europe in prosecuting anti-Semitism and rescuing almost 
its entire Jewish population.

When it comes to refugees, however, Denmark has long led the continent 
in its shift to the right—and in its growing domestic consensus that 
large-scale Muslim immigration is incompatible with European social 
democracy. To the visitor, the country’s resistance to immigrants from 
Africa and the Middle East can seem implacable. In last June’s Danish 
national election—months before the Syrian refugee crisis hit Europe—the 
debate centered around whether the incumbent, center-left Social 
Democrats or their challengers, the center-right Liberal Party, were 
tougher on asylum-seekers. The main victor was the Danish People’s 
Party, a populist, openly anti-immigration party, which drew 21 percent 
of the vote, its best performance ever. Its founder, Pia Kjærsgaard, for 
years known for suggesting that Muslims “are at a lower stage of 
civilization,” is now speaker of the Danish parliament. With the backing 
of the Danish People’s Party, the center-right Liberals formed a 
minority government that has taken one of the hardest lines on refugees 
of any European nation.

When I arrived in Copenhagen last August, the new government, under 
Liberal Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, had just cut social 
benefits to refugees by 45 percent. There was talk among Danish 
politicians and in the Danish press of an “invasion” from the Middle 
East—though the influx at the time was occurring in the Greek islands, 
more than one thousand miles away. In early September, Denmark began 
taking out newspaper ads in Lebanon and Jordan warning would-be 
asylum-seekers not to come. And by November, the Danish government 
announced that it could no longer accept the modest share of one 
thousand refugees assigned to Denmark under an EU redistribution 
agreement, because Italy and Greece had lost control of their borders.

These developments culminated in late January of this year, when 
Rasmussen’s minister of integration, Inger Støjberg, a striking, 
red-headed forty-two-year-old who has come to represent the government’s 
aggressive anti-refugee policies, succeeded in pushing through 
parliament an “asylum austerity” law that has gained notoriety across 
Europe. The new law, which passed with support from the Social Democrats 
as well as the Danish People’s Party, permits police to strip-search 
asylum-seekers and confiscate their cash and most valuables above 10,000 
Danish kroner ($1,460) to pay for their accommodation; delays the 
opportunity to apply for family reunification by up to three years; 
forbids asylum-seekers from residing outside refugee centers, some of 
which are tent encampments; reduces the cash benefits they can receive; 
and makes it significantly harder to qualify for permanent residence. 
One aim, a Liberal MP explained to me, is simply to “make Denmark less 
attractive to foreigners.”

Danish hostility to refugees is particularly startling in Scandinavia, 
where there is a pronounced tradition of humanitarianism. Over the past 
decade, the Swedish government has opened its doors to hundreds of 
thousands of Iraqis and Syrians, despite growing social problems and an 
increasingly popular far-right party. But one of the things Danish 
leaders—and many Danes I spoke to—seem to fear most is turning into 
“another Sweden.” Anna Mee Allerslev, the top integration official for 
the city of Copenhagen, told me that the Danish capital, a Social 
Democratic stronghold with a large foreign-born population, has for 
years refused to take any refugees. (Under pressure from other 
municipalities, this policy is set to change in 2016.)

In part, the Danish approach has been driven by the country’s long 
experience with terrorism and jihadism. Nearly a decade before the 
Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January 2015, and the coordinated 
terrorist attacks in Paris in November, the publication of the so-called 
Muhammad cartoons by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten had already 
turned Denmark into a primary target for extremists. Initially driven by 
a group of Danish imams, outcry against the cartoons gave strength to 
several small but radical groups among the country’s 260,000 Muslims. 
These groups have been blamed for the unusually large number of 
Danes—perhaps as many as three hundred or more—who have gone to fight in 
Syria, including some who went before the rise of ISIS in 2013. “The 
Danish system has pretty much been blinking red since 2005,” Magnus 
Ranstorp, a counterterrorism expert who advises the PET, the Danish 
security and intelligence service, told me.

Since the publication of the Muhammad cartoons, the PET and other 
intelligence forces have disrupted numerous terrorist plots, some of 
them eerily foreshadowing what happened in Paris last year. In 2009, the 
Pakistani-American extremist David Headley, together with 
Laskar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani terrorist organization, devised a meticulous 
plan to storm the Jyllands-Posten offices in Copenhagen and 
systematically kill all the journalists that could be found. Headley was 
arrested in the United States in October 2009, before any part of the 
plan was carried out; in 2013, he was sentenced by a US district court 
to thirty-five years in prison for his involvement in the Mumbai attacks 
of 2008.

In February of last year, just weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a 
young Danish-Palestinian man named Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein tried to 
shoot his way into the Copenhagen meeting of a free-speech group to 
which a Swedish cartoonist, known for his caricatures of Muhammad, had 
been invited. El-Hussein succeeded in killing a Danish filmmaker at the 
meeting before fleeing the scene; then, hours later, he killed a 
security guard at the city’s main synagogue and was shot dead by police.

Yet many Danes I talked to are less concerned about terrorism than about 
the threat they see Muslims posing to their way of life. Though Muslims 
make up less than 5 percent of the population, there is growing evidence 
that many of the new arrivals fail to enter the workforce, are slow to 
learn Danish, and end up in high-crime immigrant neighborhoods where, 
while relying on extensive state handouts, they and their children are 
cut off from Danish society. In 2010, the Danish government introduced a 
“ghetto list” of such marginalized places with the goal of 
“reintegrating” them; the list now includes more than thirty neighborhoods.

Popular fears that the refugee crisis could overwhelm the Danish welfare 
state have sometimes surprised the country’s own leadership. On December 
3, in a major defeat for the government, a clear majority of Danes—53 
percent—rejected a referendum on closer security cooperation with the 
European Union. Until now, Denmark has been only a partial EU member—for 
example, it does not belong to the euro and has not joined EU protocols 
on citizenship and legal affairs. In view of the growing threat of 
jihadism, both the government and the opposition Social Democrats hoped 
to integrate the country fully into European policing and 
counterterrorism efforts. But the “no” vote, which was supported by the 
Danish People’s Party, was driven by fears that such a move could also 
give Brussels influence over Denmark’s refugee and immigration policies.

The outcome of the referendum has ominous implications for the European 
Union at a time when emergency border controls in numerous 
countries—including Germany and Sweden as well as Denmark—have put in 
doubt the Schengen system of open borders inside the EU. In Denmark 
itself, the referendum has forced both the Liberals and the Social 
Democrats to continue moving closer to the populist right. In November, 
Martin Henriksen, the Danish People’s Party spokesman on refugees and 
immigration, told Politiken, the country’s leading newspaper, “There is 
a contest on to see who can match the Danish People’s Party on 
immigration matters, and I hope that more parties will participate.”


According to many Danes I met, the origins of Denmark’s anti-immigration 
consensus can be traced to the national election of November 2001, two 
months after the September 11 attacks in the United States. At the time, 
the recently founded Danish People’s Party was largely excluded from 
mainstream politics; the incumbent prime minister, who was a Social 
Democrat, famously described the party as unfit to govern.

But during the 1990s, the country’s Muslim population had nearly doubled 
to around 200,000 people, and in the 2001 campaign, immigration became a 
central theme. The Social Democrats suffered a devastating defeat and, 
for the first time since 1924, didn’t control the most seats in 
parliament. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the ambitious leader of the 
victorious Liberal Party (no relation to the current prime minister, 
Lars Løkke Rasmussen), made a historic decision to form a government 
with support from the Danish People’s Party, which had come in third 
place—a far-right alliance that had never been tried in Scandinavia. It 
kept Fogh Rasmussen in power for three terms.

 From an economic perspective, the government’s embrace of the populist 
right was anomalous. With its unique combination of comprehensive 
welfare and a flexible labor market—known as flexicurity—Denmark has an 
efficient economy in which the rate of job turnover is one of the 
highest in Europe, yet almost 75 percent of working-age Danes are 
employed. At the same time, the country’s extraordinary social benefits, 
such as long-term education, retraining, and free child care, are based 
on integration in the workforce. Yet many of the qualities about the 
Danish system that work so well for those born into it have made it 
particularly hard for outsiders to penetrate.

Denmark is a mostly low-lying country consisting of the Jutland 
Peninsula in the west, the large islands of Funen and Zealand in the 
east, and numerous smaller islands. (It also includes the island of 
Greenland, whose tiny population is largely Inuit.) The modern state 
emerged in the late nineteenth century, following a series of defeats by 
Bismarck’s Germany in which it lost much of its territory and a 
significant part of its population. Several Danish writers have linked 
this founding trauma to a lasting national obsession with invasion and a 
continual need to assert danskhed, or Danishness.

Among other things, these preoccupations have given the Danish welfare 
system an unusually important part in shaping national identity. 
Visitors to Denmark will find the Danish flag on everything from public 
buses to butter wrappers; many of the country’s defining institutions, 
from its universal secondary education (Folkehøjskoler—the People’s High 
Schools) to the parliament (Folketinget—the People’s House) to the 
Danish national church (Folkekirken—the People’s Church) to the concept 
of democracy itself (Folkestyret—the Rule of the People) have been built 
to reinforce a strong sense of folke, the Danish people.

One result of this emphasis on cohesion is the striking contrast between 
how Danes view their fellow nationals and how they seem to view the 
outside world: in 1997, a study of racism in EU countries found Danes to 
be simultaneously among the most tolerant and also the most racist of 
any European population. “In the nationalist self-image, tolerance is 
seen as good,” writes the Danish anthropologist Peter Hervik. 
“Yet…excessive tolerance is considered naive and counterproductive for 
sustaining Danish national identity.”

According to Hervik, this paradox helps account for the rise of the 
Danish People’s Party, or Dansk Folkeparti. Like its far-right 
counterparts in neighboring countries, the party drew on new anxieties 
about non-European immigrants and the growing influence of the EU. What 
made the Danish People’s Party particularly potent, however, was its 
robust defense of wealth redistribution and advanced welfare benefits 
for all Danes. “On a traditional left-right scheme they are very 
difficult to locate,” former prime minister Fogh Rasmussen told me in 
Copenhagen. “They are tough on crime, tough on immigration, but on 
welfare policy, they are center left. Sometimes they even try to surpass 
the Social Democrats.”

Beginning in 2002, the Fogh Rasmussen government passed a sweeping set 
of reforms to limit the flow of asylum- seekers. Among the most 
controversial were the so-called twenty-four-year rule, which required 
foreign-born spouses to be at least twenty-four years old to qualify for 
Danish citizenship, and a requirement that both spouses combined had 
spent more years living in Denmark than in any other country. 
Unprecedented in Europe, the new rules effectively ended immigrant 
marriages as a quick path to citizenship. At the same time, the 
government dramatically restricted the criteria under which a foreigner 
could qualify for refugee status.

To Fogh Rasmussen’s critics, the measures were simply a way to gain the 
support of the Danish People’s Party for his own political program. This 
included labor market reforms, such as tying social benefits more 
closely to active employment, and—most notably—a muscular new foreign 
policy. Departing from Denmark’s traditional neutrality, the government 
joined with US troops in military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq; 
Denmark has since taken part in the interventions in Libya and Syria as 
well. (In his official state portrait in the parliament, Fogh Rasmussen, 
who went on to become general secretary of NATO in 2009, is depicted 
with a Danish military plane swooping over a desolate Afghan landscape 
in the background.)

Yet the immigration overhaul also had strong foundations in the Liberal 
Party. In 1997, Bertel Haarder, a veteran Liberal politician and 
strategist, wrote an influential book called Soft Cynicism, which 
excoriated the Danish welfare system for creating, through excessive 
coddling, the very stigmatization of new arrivals to Denmark that it was 
ostensibly supposed to prevent. Haarder, who went on to become Fogh 
Rasmussen’s minister of immigration, told me, “The Danes wanted to be 
soft and nice. And we turned proud immigrants into social welfare 
addicts. It wasn’t their fault. It was our fault.”

According to Haarder, who has returned to the Danish cabinet as culture 
minister in the current Liberal government, the refugees who have come 
to Denmark in recent years overwhelmingly lack the education and 
training needed to enter the country’s advanced labor market. As Fogh 
Rasmussen’s immigration minister, he sought to match the restrictions on 
asylum-seekers with expedited citizenship for qualified foreigners. But 
he was also known for his criticism of Muslims who wanted to assert 
their own traditions: “All this talk about equality of cultures and 
equality of religion is nonsense,” he told a Danish newspaper in 2002. 
“The Danes have the right to make decisions in Denmark.”


Coming amid the Fogh Rasmussen government’s rightward shift on 
immigration and its growing involvement in the “war on terror,” the 
decision by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 to 
publish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad seemed to bring into the 
open an irresolvable conflict. In the decade since they appeared, the 
cartoons have been linked to the torching of Western embassies, an 
unending series of terrorist attacks and assassination plots across 
Europe, and a sense, among many European intellectuals, that Western 
society is being cowed into a “tyranny of silence,” as Flemming Rose, 
the former culture editor of Jyllands-Posten who commissioned the 
cartoons and who now lives under constant police protection, has titled 
a recent book.1 In his new study of French jihadism, Terreur dans 
l’hexagone: Genèse du djihad français, Gilles Kepel, the French scholar 
of Islam, suggests that the cartoons inspired an “international Islamic 
campaign against little Denmark” that became a crucial part of a broader 
redirection of jihadist ideology toward the West.

Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the cartoons of the Prophet 
Muhammad that were published by Jyllands-Posten in September 2005
Roald Als
Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the cartoons of the Prophet 
Muhammad that were published by Jyllands-Posten in September 2005
And yet little about the original twelve cartoons could have foretold 
any of this. Traditionally based in Jutland, Jyllands-Posten is a 
center-right broadsheet that tends to draw readers from outside the 
capital; it was little known abroad before the cartoons appeared. 
Following reports that a Danish illustrator had refused to do drawings 
for a book about Muhammad, Rose invited a group of caricaturists to 
“draw Muhammad as you see him” to find out whether they were similarly 
inhibited (most of them weren’t). Some of the resulting drawings made 
fun of the newspaper itself for pursuing the idea; in the subsequent 
controversy, outrage was largely directed at just one of the cartoons, 
which depicted the Prophet wearing a lit bomb as a turban. Even then, 
the uproar began only months later, after the Danish prime minister 
refused a request from diplomats of Muslim nations for a meeting about 
the cartoons. “I thought it was a trap,” Fogh Rasmussen told me. At the 
same time, several secular Arab regimes, including Mubarak’s Egypt and 
Assad’s Syria, concluded that encouraging vigorous opposition to the 
cartoons could shore up their Islamist credentials.

Once angry mass protests had finally been stirred up throughout the 
Muslim world in late January and early February 2006—including in Egypt, 
Iran, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, and Afghanistan—the crisis quickly took on 
a logic that had never existed at the outset: attacks against Western 
targets led many newspapers in the West to republish the cartoons in 
solidarity, which in turn provoked more attacks. By the time of the 
Charlie Hebdo massacre in early 2015, there was a real question of what 
Timothy Garton Ash, in these pages, has called “the assassin’s veto,” 
the fact that some newspapers might self-censor simply to avoid further 
violence.2 Jyllands-Posten itself, declaring in an editorial in January 
2015 that “violence works,” no longer republishes the cartoons.

Lost in the geopolitical fallout, however, was the debate over Danish 
values that the cartoons provoked in Denmark itself. Under the influence 
of the nineteenth-century state builder N.F.S. Grundtvig, the founders 
of modern Denmark embraced free speech as a core value. It was the first 
country in Europe to legalize pornography in the 1960s, and Danes have 
long taken a special pleasure in cheerful, in-your-face irreverence. In 
December Politiken published a cartoon showing the integration minister 
Inger Støjberg gleefully lighting candles on a Christmas tree that has a 
dead asylum-seeker as an ornament (see illustration on page 34).

Explaining his own reasons for commissioning the Muhammad cartoons, 
Flemming Rose has written of the need to assert the all-important right 
to “sarcasm, mockery, and ridicule” against an encroaching 
totalitarianism emanating from the Islamic world. He also makes clear 
that Muslims or any other minority group should be equally free to 
express their own views in the strongest terms. (Rose told me that he 
differs strongly with Geert Wilders, the prominent Dutch populist and 
critic of Islam. “He wants to ban the Koran. I say absolutely you can’t 
do that.”)

But Rose’s views about speech have been actively contested. Bo 
Lidegaard, the editor of Politiken, the traditional paper of the 
Copenhagen establishment, was Fogh Rasmussen’s national security adviser 
at the time of the cartoons crisis. Politiken, which shares the same 
owner and inhabits the same high-security building as Jyllands-Posten, 
has long been critical of the publication of the cartoons by its sister 
paper, and Lidegaard was blunt. “It was a complete lack of understanding 
of what a minority religion holds holy,” he told me. “It also seemed to 
be mobbing a minority, by saying, in their faces, ‘We don’t respect your 
religion! You may think this is offensive but we don’t think its 
offensive, so you’re dumb!’”

Lidegaard, who has written several books about Danish history, argues 
that the cartoons’ defenders misread the free speech tradition. He cites 
Denmark’s law against “threatening, insulting, or degrading” speech, 
which was passed by the Danish parliament in 1939, largely to protect 
the country’s Jewish minority from anti-Semitism. Remarkably, it 
remained in force—and was even invoked—during the Nazi occupation of 
Denmark. According to Lidegaard, it is a powerful recognition that 
upholding equal rights and tolerance for all can sometimes trump the 
need to protect extreme forms of speech.

Today, however, few Danes seem concerned about offending Muslims. 
Neils-Erik Hansen, a leading Danish human rights lawyer, told me that 
the anti–hate speech law has rarely been used in recent years, and that 
in several cases of hate crimes against Muslim immigrants—a newspaper 
boy was killed after being called “Paki swine”—the authorities have 
shown little interest in invoking the statute. During the cartoon 
affair, Lidegaard himself was part of the foreign policy team that 
advised Prime Minister Fogh Rasmussen not to have talks with Muslim 
representatives. When I asked him about this, he acknowledged, “The 
government made some mistakes.”

A playground in Mjølnerparken, a housing project largely for immigrants 
in north Copenhagen known for gang activity and high unemployment
Claus Bech/Scanpix
A playground in Mjølnerparken, a housing project largely for immigrants 
in north Copenhagen known for gang activity and high unemployment

Last fall I visited Mjølnerparken, an overwhelmingly immigrant “ghetto” 
in north Copenhagen where Omar el-Hussein, the shooter in last year’s 
attack against the free speech meeting, had come from. Many of the youth 
there belong to gangs and have been in and out of prison; the police 
make frequent raids to search for guns. Upward of half the adults, many 
of them of Palestinian and Somali origin, are unemployed. Eskild 
Pedersen, a veteran social worker who almost single-handedly looks after 
the neighborhood, told me that hardly any ethnic Danes set foot there. 
This was Denmark at its worst.

And yet there was little about the tidy red-brick housing blocks or the 
facing playground, apart from a modest amount of graffiti, that 
suggested dereliction or squalor. Pedersen seems to have the trust of 
many of his charges. He had just settled a complicated honor dispute 
between two Somalian families; and as we spoke, a Palestinian girl, not 
more than six, interrupted to tell him about a domestic violence problem 
in her household. He has also found part-time jobs for several gang 
members, and helped one of them return to school; one young man of 
Palestinian background gave me a tour of the auto body shop he had 
started in a nearby garage. (When a delegation of Egyptians was recently 
shown the neighborhood, the visitors asked, “Where is the ghetto?”)

But in Denmark, the police force is regarded as an extension of the 
social welfare system and Pedersen also makes it clear, to the young men 
especially, that he works closely with law enforcement. As last year’s 
shooting reveals, it doesn’t always work. But city officials in 
Copenhagen and in Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, describe some cases in 
which local authorities, drawing on daily contact with young and often 
disaffected Muslims, including jihadists returning from Syria, have been 
able to preempt extremist behavior.

Across Europe in recent weeks, shock over the arrival of hundreds of 
thousands of refugees has quickly been overtaken by alarm over the 
challenge they are now seen as posing to social stability. Several 
countries that have been welcoming to large numbers of Syrian and other 
asylum-seekers are confronting growing revolts from the far right—along 
with anti-refugee violence. In December Die Zeit, the German newsweekly, 
reported that more than two hundred German refugee shelters have been 
attacked or firebombed over the past year; in late January, Swedish 
police intercepted a gang of dozens of masked men who were seeking to 
attack migrants near Stockholm’s central station. Since the beginning of 
2016, two notorious far-right, anti-immigration parties—the Sweden 
Democrats in Sweden and Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the 
Netherlands—became more popular than the ruling parties in their 
respective countries, despite being excluded from government.

Nor is the backlash limited to the right. Since the New Year’s attacks 
by migrants against women in Cologne, conservative opponents of German 
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy have been joined by feminists 
and members of the left, who have denounced the “patriarchal” traditions 
of the “Arab man.” Recent data on the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, 
who in January were polling at 28 percent of the popular vote, shows 
that the party’s steady rise during Sweden’s decade of open-asylum 
policies has closely tracked a parallel decline in support for the 
center-left Social Democrats, the traditional force in Swedish politics. 
Confronted with such a populist surge, the Swedish government announced 
on January 27 that it plans to deport as many as 80,000 asylum-seekers.

As the advanced democracies of Europe reconsider their physical and 
psychological borders with the Muslim world, the restrictive Danish 
approach to immigration and the welfare state offers a stark 
alternative. Brought into the political process far earlier than its 
counterparts elsewhere, the Danish People’s Party is a good deal more 
moderate than, say, the National Front in France; but it also has 
succeeded in shaping, to an extraordinary degree, the Danish immigration 
debate. In recent weeks, Denmark’s Social Democrats have struggled to 
define their own immigration policy amid sagging support. When I asked 
former prime minister Fogh Rasmussen about how the Danish People’s Party 
differed from the others on asylum-seekers and refugees, he said, “You 
have differences when it comes to rhetoric, but these are nuances.”

In January, more than 60,000 refugees arrived in Europe, a 
thirty-five-fold increase from the same month last year; but in Denmark, 
according to Politiken, the number of asylum-seekers has steadily 
declined since the start of the year, with only 1,400 seeking to enter 
the country. In limiting the kind of social turmoil now playing out in 
Germany, Sweden, and France, the Danes may yet come through the current 
crisis a more stable, united, and open society than any of their 
neighbors. But they may also have shown that this openness extends no 
farther than the Danish frontier.

—February 10, 2016

A revised paperback edition of Tyranny of Silence will be published by 
the Cato Institute in September.  ↩
See “Defying the Assassin’s Veto,” The New York Review, February 19, 2015. ↩

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