War, Xenophobia, and the Death Agony of the Danish Social Democratic Welfare State

This paper analyzes how the Danish welfare state and socialism in Denmark have declined since the 1970s, and how this has accelerated since the beginning of the century. The reasons for this can be found in the hegemonic shift in ideology from socialism to neoliberalism, the latter privileging the private sector. This has led to comprehensive changes within Denmark in terms of immigration policy and foreign policy.

Denmark is a small, wealthy country with a population of approximately 5.5 million occupying an area of just over 43,000 square kilometers. Since World War II the Danish people have enjoyed social peace and a high standard of living, backed up by an extensive welfare state. The Scandinavian countries were pioneers in the development of such welfare states.1 The Danish labor movement was successful in politically institutionalizing its objectives during the post-war period, gradually expanding the public sector. This was accomplished by establishing a comprehensive system that secured the labor unions’ jurisdictional demands regarding working life, and also expanded access to education to the whole population. In that sense, the Danish welfare state is a system of governmental and legal arrangements which guarantees the security of the individual. More importantly for the purposes of this essay, this system also underpins the socialization of Danish citizens.

The labor movement made it the Danish state’s task to provide the working class with security. The ideology it rested upon is a socialistic notion that all are equally important contributors to Danish society – a dominant social philosophy very different to anything found in mainstream thought within the English-speaking world.

The Danish welfare state

The Danish welfare model is a justice-based system built upon the assumptions 1) that an industrial society generates a sufficient surplus to provide all participants fundamental goods such as disposable income, housing, clothing and food, and 2) that such goods and services should be divided fairly (although what is ‘fair’ has always been a matter of debate). The Danish state performs far more than the classical liberal tasks of providing external security and a domestic police force. While this can be said of any modern state, the Danish state goes further, having developed into an entity that manages a large portion of every citizen’s income, redistributing it in the form of welfare services. This has resulted in a high standard of living, high level of free speech, social peace and personal security, an education and a health care system accessible to all, and other benefits (Mourn 1982).

However, these benefits have had at least two side-effects in terms of political socialization. First, the system’s success has caused the Danish people to perceive themselves as forming a highly moral society, one with strong and even superior ethical values. Second, the system has removed a large proportion of the anxieties of daily life, a liberation which has brought with it what I would describe as a ‘welfare blindness’, causing the general majority to be relatively uncritical of the political leaders, police officers, judges and others whose task it is to manage the system.

In order to acquire a broader understanding of how Denmark has seen a recent upsurge in xenophobia and how the Danes’ traditional socialistic ethic has weakened, it is necessary to look beyond the country’s borders and to examine its place within the international system.

Danish-US relations since World War II

Modern US-Danish relations were established early in WWII. The US interest in Denmark was primarily due to two factors: Denmark’s strategic location at the mouth of the Baltic Sea; and its colony Greenland. The latter proved to be of vital importance to the US, with the accord between the two countries – The Agreement Relating to The Defense of Greenland signed in Washington in 1941 remaining ever since a bilateral agreement, outside the aegis of NATO, of which the two countries were founder members.2

Anders Fogh Rasmussen,3 who served as Danish Prime Minister from 2001 to 2009 and is currently NATO Secretary General, established still closer relations with the United States and enjoyed a rather informal relationship with President Bush. After the 9/11 attacks the White House launched its War on Terror media campaign, proclaiming that terror must be stopped and that an Axis of Evil had expanded to incorporate Afghanistan and later Iraq. In Denmark, Fogh launched a similar campaign, though one which was redesigned for the Danish welfare hegemony and the already escalating xenophobic discourse towards Muslim immigrants promoted by the populist Dansk Folkeparti (DFDanish People’s Party).4 Both media campaigns were successful in that they obtained sufficient public support and acquiescence in legitimizing the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, despite the latter lacking a United Nations mandate or widespread international support.5

Fogh’s first sign of wanting to engage even more closely with the United States became evident when he convinced or rather pressured Denmark to join the Coalition of the Willing and support the invasion of Iraq in 2003, promising and emphasizing that it would be a short war. The same year, the Danish conglomerate Mærsk6 obtained yet another contract with the Pentagon that tripled its turnover to $638.7 billion in 2004. The potential to profit from the occupations was openly discussed within both the Danish government and the private sector. Peter Skaarup from DF argued that Denmark should get into the game and win reconstruction contracts, while both the governmental Danish Export Council (ER) and the employers’ organization, Danish Industry (DI), had trouble hiding their optimism over profiting from the wars as Danish exports progressed rapidly with the onset of armed conflict.7

Mærsk is not the only Danish company to have benefitted from the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Insulin producers Novo Nordisk, the conglomerate Copenhagen Group A/S,8 Danish Steel Construction A/S and Marc Trading9 are amongst those which have profited from the two wars. Their business ventures have, moreover, shown how large sums of international aid that have been gathered for the international fund to reconstruct Afghanistan have been divided between the Coalition nations’ private companies.

The neoliberal world system and the rise of Danish xenophobia

The development of the current world system took form after the oil crisis of the early 1970s. Subsequently, Margaret Thatcher, Deng Xiaoping, Ronald Reagan and Paul Volcker took office as heads of governments, or in Volcker’s case, of the US Federal Reserve. The neoliberal ideology they introduced became “the central guiding principle of economic thought and management…” (Harvey 2005: 2), resulting in a shift of power to the corporate sector. The ideology was promoted using the language of ‘freedom’, constructing a new ‘common sense’. ‘Common sense’ was defined by Antonio Gramsci as an idea that is generated or constructed within or on behalf of the elite and then propagated by institutional means so that it is held by the mass of people both inside and outside of that elite. This discourse became an essential instrument to legitimize actions that provided the corporate sector with new business ventures. This process was promoted and thus legitimized by the governments’ conviction that held that “the social good [would] be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions” (Bieler & Morton 2003).

In Denmark, this ideology did not entrench itself until 2001 when Fogh was elected Prime Minister. This relatively late embracing of the ideology is in large part due to the institutionalized welfare hegemony that has been implemented over a hundred-year period. Although the social democratic government which preceded Fogh’s had imposed recognizably neoliberal policies, institutionalized welfare-ism remained the base ideology of the mass of the Danish population. What now developed was a redefinition, rather than an open abandonment, of a socialistic principle that the ‘strongest’ should carry the ‘weakest’. The parameters for ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ would now need to be understood in the language of the market, which determines value in terms of capital. Welfare would no longer be viewed as a right, but would instead be viewed as reflecting the benevolence of the rich, in caring for the poor (Jensen 2010).

Unemployment rose towards the end of the 20th century, reaching 900,000 in 1997-8. In response, the social democratic government introduced a new structural and fiscal policy scheme, called Pinsepakken (Pentecost Package), irreverently referred to in everyday public discourse as Pissepakken (Piss-Package). The package’s most significant element was that the tax value of the interest deduction was reduced from 46.4% to 32.4%, which in practice particularly affected young families with mortgages. ‘Green’ taxes on energy and gasoline were also increased. The improved proceeds from these and several less extensive changes were used to lower the bottom tax rate from 8% to 5.5%, raising the bottom limit for tax and lowering the corporate tax rate from 34% to 26%.10 In other words, the corporate sector gained an 8% increase in their revenues and, free of charge, a 2.5% increase in every employee’s personal income, reducing upward pressure on wages. In conclusion, the reforms ostensibly introduced to ‘balance the economy’ had an immediate effect on consumption and on the housing market. Housing prices did not decline but neither did they increase as they were expected to, since the reform had tightened the conditions for obtaining mortgages (Den Store Danske).

As a consequence, many former supporters of socialist policies fled to the populist extreme right, to the DF party. DF had successfully linked immigration and the degradation of the welfare state, in the minds of many dissatisfied voters. From this period on, public rhetoric concerning Islam, immigrants and refugees intensified and became more and more negative, with immigration even more strongly indicated as the reason for the drastic reforms. For this reason, it became more socially acceptable to support the DF (Jensen 2010; Den Store Danske).

This public xenophobia increased when Fogh came to power immediately after the 9/11 attacks, following an election campaign centered on the integration of immigrants and on the question of Islam and its role in Danish society. When the World Trade Center was attacked only two months before the Danish election, this reinforced the appeal of an increasingly xenophobic right. In the face of general dissatisfaction with the structural and fiscal policy schemes introduced by the social democratic government, Fogh’s misleadingly-named Venstre (Left11) party supported by the Konservative Folkeparti (Conservative People’s Party – KO) and the xenophobic party DF, were strong candidates for winning the election, which they duly did (Keen 2006: 11).

Recent challenges linked to the arrival of immigrants escaping war and oppression have meant that the ‘weakest’ group in Danish society – which is to say those whose resources are inadequate to the needs of daily life – has gradually expanded. At the same time, however, the pool of money which would otherwise have been available for redistribution in the form of welfare services, and which might have been used to address problems associated with poverty, has dwindled. This is largely because of an increase in the scope of permissive tax laws provided to the corporate sector. These laws have been implemented on the assumption that they would strengthen Danish companies in the face of sharpening global competition. The laws have been financed by comprehensive cuts to welfare services, which in turn, when combined with a general scapegoating of immigrants as being responsible for overloading the welfare system, have served to add further fuel to the fires of xenophobia. Immigrants are seen as failing to value the Danish way of life or share its value system, and as being a drain on the welfare society, a society that the Danes have taken so long to build – neglecting the fact that immigrants in large part helped build it.12

Neoliberalism redesigned to fit Danish welfare hegemony

As explained above, Danes, in common with the bulk of the population of the other Scandinavian countries, had since WWII held a view of the responsibilities of the state vis-à-vis its citizens which stood in direct opposition to the philosophy of neoliberalism. From the late 1970s onwards, however, Denmark slowly began introducing reforms which clearly represented a move away from social democracy and towards the ideology of the free market. Since Fogh took power in Denmark in 2001, this process has intensified. In order to achieve his ambitions, however, he needed to translate the doctrine in a manner that appeared to gel with the Danish welfare hegemony. He thus adopted the argument that it was a necessity to privatize and outsource public services in order to preserve them. He claimed that the private sector could manage the services more cost-effectively than could the public sector, implying that the services’ level of quality would increase, leading to increased welfare.

In order to convince the majority of the public, Fogh used the language of freedom. He also co-opted social democratic rhetoric, claiming that he would protect the interests of the elderly (perhaps the DF’s principal constituency) and of the weakest groups in society. He argued, for example, that the elderly should be given the freedom to choose either public or private healthcare. He based this argument on the drastic decline in the quality of healthcare for older people, and the fact that care workers have almost no time to provide actual care, as they must frequently spend the bulk of their time on meetings, logistics, transportation, and administrative tasks. The idea that these problems could be addressed through giving older people a choice of private or public sector care-providers, however, completely ignores the constraints which most people are under when it comes to making such a ‘choice’. The reality is also, of course, that neoliberal reforms have resulted in significant cuts in budgets not only for elder care but across the board of social healthcare and educational provision.

It is important to understand that a large part of the reason why the private sector in Denmark has enjoyed great success in the past is precisely because of a welfare system which has served to produce a skilled labor force. The large labor force has enjoyed good services in terms of public education (including direct financial assistance to students), unemployment support, and re-training possibilities, so that potential employees are more attractive to employers as they already have or can easily gain the skills needed in the job market. The system has also provided conditions that support entrepreneurial success and innovation. Finally, the welfare state secured political support from workers, in effect persuading them to acquiesce in their own exploitation (Jensen 2010).

But, with the increasing scarcity of resources and with Danish capital’s pressing need to keep finding new business ventures, an ideological shift became necessary. Ever more drastic measures would be needed to feed the appetite of the Danish elite, and an increase of xenophobia proved to be an effective means to achieve this.

Present political debate: The values debate

Political debate in Denmark focuses on values, linking the non-integration of Muslims and immigrants to their alleged different values. This has developed into what is referred to as the ‘values-debate’, in which people of non-Danish origin are assumed to have opposing values to those of the ‘Danish’. A worldview has arisen which maintains that the values of immigrants are not as good as those of the Danes, and in some cases that they are appalling. These arguments are based on the fact that the crime rate is higher among immigrants and their descendants than among ‘average Danes’, but international parallels are also drawn, stressing the fact that the immigrants’ countries of origin most often are in a state of war. This is again alleged to be due to a different system of values linked almost exclusively to Islam. It is argued that if only these countries embraced Danish and not Islamic values, they would be peaceful. Following this rationale, the debate has linked vandalism, crime rates and war to the possession of different or Islamic values, concluding that the ‘others’ simply do not know how to behave. The broadcasting of conflicts and wars from non-Western, particularly Muslim regions becomes conclusive proof of this rationale. In other words, non-Western immigrants – or in fact merely non-whites – are by default considered to be Muslim immigrants who are potentially violent or terroristic.

This ideology and reasoning have led to a new definition of certain neighborhoods. Focus has been directed towards areas where around half or the majority of residents are immigrants and their descendants; these have been officially defined as ghettos and are now referred to as such. A polemic has developed in which the social problems afflicting areas with a high proportion of immigrants are attributed to the fact that these immigrants have ‘un-Danish’ or implicitly Islamic values. This led the government to put forward a Ghetto Plan in October 2010 (Government Report 2010).

A ghetto, in its primary definition, is an area that is home to the least advantaged people in terms of education, employment and finances. These areas have always existed in Denmark. There has, however, been an increase in the numbers of such neighborhoods as welfare provision has declined. Moreover, a new political identification has changed discursive practice. Before this, the areas were referred to as places that were highly congested, which meant that the residents living there had major social problems. Many immigrants and refugees live in such neighborhoods, partly because their financial support from the state is lower than that of the average state subsidy recipient, and partly because it has become increasingly difficult for non-whites with exotic names to acquire employment. Moreover, most of the families that live in such neighborhoods have not chosen it themselves, but have been allotted an apartment there by the municipality.

Now, however, the disadvantaged neighborhoods are referred to as ghettos, for which the government has developed new criteria based on the above-described reasoning. A ghetto is defined as a neighborhood that maintains 1000 or more residents and fulfills two of the following three criteria (Government Report 2010):

1. The proportion of the residents who are immigrants and descendants from non-Western countries exceeds 50%.

2. The proportion of the residents within the 18 to 64 year age range who have no affiliation to the labor market or the educational system exceeds 40% (measured from the average over the last four years).

3. The proportion of the residents who have been convicted within the Penal Code, Weapons Act or in the Law on Narcotics exceeds 270 per 10,000 (measured from the average of last four years).

What is interesting is how the third criterion is presented: 270 persons convicted out of 10,000 residents. The overall crime rate (in 2008) of 83 convictions per 10,000 residents is indeed significantly lower, but it must be remembered that areas in which poverty and its associated problems are concentrated tend to have higher crime rates, whatever the color of the residents’ skin or their preferred mode of worship. Moreover, according to the same report, only 6.5% of the ghettos’ population are non-Western immigrants. Yet since these percentages are presented in a way which draws attention to ethnicity and religion, what we see is a manipulation of the crime rate figures in a way which seems designed to generate a xenophobic response instead of focusing on the structural and social problems (Government Report 2010).

In conclusion, since Fogh took power he leaned on and sometimes borrowed the DF’s far right rhetoric. He launched a media campaign similar to that of Bush, and this has resulted in DF becoming significantly more powerful. At the same time, developments in Danish foreign policy can be linked to this, in both directions, as the demonization of Muslims has divided and demoralized those who might have been expected to resist the rise of neoliberalism, while dampening domestic opposition to Danish participation in the Coalition of the Willing. As the government promised a ‘short war’ when it joined the CoW in 2003, it simultaneously made itself dependent on DF’s exaggerated forms of expression, with the result that the propaganda of the populist far right has been able to further infect the Danish mind-set. The fear of, or at least the extreme skepticism towards Muslims and non-Western immigrants, combined with the economic crisis that further constrains the funds available for welfare services, has simply served to reinforce support for or acquiescence in Denmark’s belligerent foreign policy as well as acceptance of new discriminatory domestic laws that violate Denmark’s international conventions. These developments have led to DF developing what amounts to a cultural dictatorship, leaving them in charge of defining what it is to be Danish, which is inherently indefinable. As Harvey explains in a reference to Gramsci,

Cultural and traditional values (such as belief in God and country or views on the position of women in society) and fears (of communists, immigrants, strangers, or ‘others’) can be mobilized to mask other realities. Political slogans can be invoked that mask specific strategies beneath vague rhetorical devices.… Gramsci therefore concluded that political questions become ‘insoluble’ when ‘disguised as cultural ones’. (Harvey 2005: 39)

As a result, a parallel reality is being created in which the political debate concerns the nature of Danish culture. This generates social division and unrest, and draws attention away from material reality. The most important questions facing the Danish people are not what it ‘means’ to be a Dane, but rather such matters as the erosion of the welfare state and the way in which an elite rooted in the private sector obtained its objective of invading Afghanistan and Iraq in pursuit of profit at the price of death and destruction and increased domestic unrest.

This development, where xenophobic rhetoric has generated fear of people of non-white skin color, has left the opposition in deadlock. Instead of promoting new policies countering the liberal and neoliberal, they can only react defensively. Only one party, Enhedslisten (EL – Unity List), also known as the Red-Green Alliance, continues to base its ideas, policies and practices in a socialist ideology. This party is, however, the smallest parliamentary political grouping, one which is invariably, at each successive election, close to failing to win the minimum percentage of votes which, under Denmark’s proportional representation system, is necessary to qualify for parliamentary representation.

The last time that socialism was able to win great influence and thus the power to build the Danish welfare state was immediately after WWII. In this period, socialism won support from a people which had recently experienced horrific death and destruction. Brought together by such a crisis, they perceived themselves as having a common interest in reconstruction and acted accordingly. In the fortunate absence of such conditions and with the subsequent spread of prosperity, it became difficult to sustain such a response.

Conclusion

As the Danish welfare state, though based on an identifiably socialist ideology, was created within a capitalist system, welfare services can be characterized as concessions from the elite. Goods and services were redistributed to the subordinate classes without any challenge being made to the power of the capitalist elite, with the upshot that welfare as a system ‘naturally’ declines during economic downturns.

A primary effect of an economic downturn is the spread of dissatisfaction among the majority of the population. This dissatisfaction creates pressure on the government to do something about it. In order to hold on to power, they must silence the people’s grumbles in one way or another. When it proves impossible for them to address real grievances, or if they are unwilling to do so (for instance by arresting the decline in services), other means must be sought. In Fogh’s case, these other means involved employing the Danish People’s Party’s xenophobic rhetoric, implying a fear of people of a non-white skin color, and particularly of Muslims. This enabled him to join the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, in keeping with the elite’s interests.

For Denmark to join the Coalition of the Willing and invade these countries has been highly beneficial for the elite and for the private sector, and it continues to be so. However, as the complicated security situations in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved more difficult than was at first expected, this has caused problems for those corporations which have sought to profit from the wars. This has contributed to the pressure on a government which is left with fewer and fewer resources to satisfy the public’s demands. In order to deflect attention and thus stay in power, they have had to take steps which have left them dependent on a continued relationship with the far right and thus on the maintenance of a hostile attitude towards immigrants and Muslims.

This comprehensive stigmatization has led to a dynamic where the opposition has felt the need to work even harder on its defensive reaction, instead of seeking to promote new and genuinely oppositional policies The upshot is that this opposition too has co-opted the far right’s or DF’s reasoning, as well as the government’s neoliberal ideology. The discourse may be softer, but it rests on the same fundamental assumptions.

A thick carpet of fear has settled upon Danish society more and more since 2001. Opposition, such as it is, is hidebound by the need to operate within an ideological framework established by the right and the extreme right. The result is a parallel reality in which the political debate concerns insoluble issues such as values, culture, traditions, and Danish-ness, rendering political discourse irrational and irrelevant, and drawing attention away from the elite’s agenda.

In conclusion, the cocktail of neoliberalism and xenophobia has proved to be an extremely risky mix, an ideology fraught with dangerous implications which raises the question of whether a populist far right which was once co-opted and exploited as a weapon has in fact moved into a position of ideological leadership. The government increasingly adopts a stance indistinguishable in most ways from that of DF, while the bulk of the opposition plays the same melody in an attempt to lure its voters back.

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Aagaard, Charlotte, 2004. Erhvervs-livet tjener milliarder i Irak [The Corporate World Makes Billions in Iraq], Information, January 1, http://www.information.dk/89676

Agreement Relating to The Defense of Greenland, American Journal of International Law 1941, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2213493

Andersen, Erik Juel, 1997. Danmark under anden verdenskrig [Denmark during World War II ], in Danish Military History,
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Coipuram, Tom Jr., 2003. CSR Report, Iraq: United Nations and Humanitarian Aid Organizations

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Notes

1. Welfare (velfærd) is commonly understood as a desirable or favorable condition for individuals and groups. This condition can for example be influenced by material, economic, or psychological security and well-being. In Danish public debate, the concept of welfare is associated with the satisfaction of fundamental values such as the security of life, health, food, shelter, education, work, etc. (Mourn 1982)

2. American Journal of International Law 1941: 132; Andersen 1997; Jensen 2010; Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2009

3. As ‘Rasmussen’ is a common surname in Denmark, Anders Fogh Rasmussen is always referred to as Anders Fogh, or Fogh, just like Denmark’s prior PM, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen (Nyrup) and Fogh’s successor, Lars Løkke Rasmussen (Løkke). This essay will therefore refer to him as ‘Fogh’.

4. Pia Kjærsgaard, former office assistant and care worker in the public health care sector, became the leader of the former party Fremskridtspartiet (Progress Party) established in 1972 that had been led by Mogens Glistrup, a high court attorney. The Progress Party’s policy was formed as a xenophobic response to the oil crisis, expressing strong opposition to immigrants and refugees. In the 80s, Glistrup was imprisoned for fraud and Kjærsgaard took over the party, renaming it Dansk Folkeparti (Jakobsen & Søndergaard 2002: 14; Den Store Danske)

5. Government Report 2002; Giraldi 2005

6. Mærsk is the most famous, most important and by far the largest company in Denmark. It was founded in 1904 by Arnold Peter Møller; his son Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller took over the group in 1965. It is the world’s largest shipping operator and leading shipping container corporation. It effectively manages both the Danish oil industry and more than half of the Danish retail sector. In other words, it fills Danes’ plates and heats their homes. (Mærsk; Mærsk Oil; Danish Supermarkets; Nerup 1997).

7. Danish People’s Party Press Release 2003; Coipuram 2003:2-10; Aagaard 2003; Aagaard 2004.

8. Jeppe Handwerk first established the Copenhagen Group A/S [Ltd] in 2006 under the name Copenhagen Contractors A/S. He wanted to establish an entrepreneurial company that would specialize in war and crisis zones. Handwerk established his company in Afghanistan since “…the invasion was ‘cachet’ by the UN and NATO unlike Iraq.” (Olsen 2010). Handwerk has experience from the Greenlandic Sirius Patrol whose logistics are similar to Afghanistan’s. For this reason, and due to the lack of extensive competition, Handwerk thought Afghanistan an interesting new business venture. In the beginning Copenhagen Contractors A/S provided buildings but later received other assignments, which caused the company to split, merging the subcontractors, and thus creating Copenhagen Group A/S. The subcontractors, apart from Copenhagen Contractors A/S, are: Copenhagen Global A/S (armored vehicles), Copenhagen Elect A/S (electoral equipment), IM Jensen A/S (garages in Afghanistan that repair armored vehicles; imports to Afghanistan from the Swedish automaker Volvo Construction Equipment). Their biggest clients are NATO and the UN (Olsen 2010).

9. The companies cooperate with each other; the Danish Steel Construction A/S is responsible for the production of goods while Marc Trading is in charge of sales. (Metal Supply 2005)

10. Today the corporate tax amounts to 25% and the bottom tax has been reduced to 3.76%. (SKAT)

11. The ‘Left’ was introduced in Denmark in 1870, prior to the establishment of the Social Democratic Party and the labor-based political movement which it represented. (Venstre 2010).

12. Danish Ministry of Finance 2006; Lykkeberg 2008: 70-1; Government Report 2002.

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