Why I am a Monarchist and Social Democrat
One of the oldest demands from socialist movements has been the abolition of Monarchy. The idea of inherited position and power comes across as an anachronism in a world where we believe in meritocracy, democracy and freedom. There is nothing more quintessentially conservative than being a Monarchist. Those who follow me on Medium should know from my writing that I am most definitely not a conservative.
I have written about socialism in positive terms on many occasions: What is Modern Scandinavian Socialism in 2020?
Thus it may seem like a complete oxymoron that I am a champion of Monarchy. I did not always hold this position. Ironically I did not favor Monarchy when I was strongly opposed to all forms of socialism. So what made me change?
I never followed the traditional political trajectory that so many people do in Anglophone countries, like the US. In the US, young people often become socialists or atheists in opposition to their conservative parents. That is what teenage rebellion looks like in a predominantly conservative country. But I did not grow up in a conservative country. I grew in a country marked by decades of social democratic rule. What American conservatives imagine as their worst nightmare today was pretty much reality in Norway in the 1980s when I grew up. In your average Norwegian middle class family, everybody voted for the Norwegian labour party, as their parents had.
Voting for the conservatives was not the same as in the US. The conservative party was for the moneyed elite. The spoiled brats. People with silk scarfs, light blue shirts. Businessmen, doctors and lawyers. Not Joe Average. Now, your parents may no longer be working shifts in a factory. My parents certainly did not. But there was this sense of owing your allegiance to the labour party. It was the party that had raised your family tree out of poverty and into the middle class lifestyle they now enjoyed. Conservatives were marked as the ones who had always been a roadblock against the working class. Always voted down union rights, shorter work week, universal health care, etc.
So, when I actually felt drawn politically towards the Norwegian political right it felt like treason. My grandfather had been a union representative most of his life. Something he had many stories about. My grandmother’s father had been an infamous union boss. In the town where my grandmother was from, parents would scare their kids with his name. He had a powerful booming voice he had used to address the large masses of people. There was something epic about these characters on the family tree. And here was I, the black sheep of the family tree who was rejecting the Norwegian labour party.
I remember my grandfather put it in stark words when I was a child:
The labour party made it so that the working man no longer had to stand with his hat held out and ask for pity or charity.
It was clear who the old enemy was. It was Høyre, our conservative party. Siding with them was on par with siding with Mordor if you were an elf in Middle Earth.
So what on earth compelled me to seek the other side? I have always been a bit of a contrarian. I have never liked doing something simply because everybody else does it, or because it is expected. That seems like the worst reason of all. Nobody really ever gave me what seemed like a good reason to vote for the Labour party. Had the battle not been won? Were we not all middle class now? Why should we vote for a party for historical reasons? Isn’t who would be best at running the country really what mattered?
Perhaps most of all I detested argumentation based on emotion. The way the media and many other people depicted the conservatives made it seem like they were simply, cruel or selfish. Too many arguments seemed to be based on emotions rather than on a well-articulated reason for why one policy would work better than another. As a technology and science enthusiast, I have a technocratic mindset. I began reading a bunch of books on economics. And this is a warning to anyone who begins doing that. The world of Econ 101 is very biased in favor of a libertarian or right-wing view of the world.
These books simplify the world dramatically to one of rational and enlightened actors operating in perfect markets. In such a world, the policies pushed by the conservatives makes perfect sense. In a way I entered “Mount Stupid.”
I had learned just enough about how the world worked to get a smug sense that I somehow knew better than everybody else. All those social democrats, socialists and liberals were just stupid. They did not get macro-economics like I did. This idea only got further solidified after I joined the labour party for young people. In Norway there is a very old tradition for political youth organizations. These are a very important part of the political system. The parent parties of these youth organization are usually filled with politicians who learned their political skills by going through these organizations. They take seriously what the young people say and come and listen to them.
The rest of the world has perhaps only gotten to know about this indirectly through the Utøya massacre, by right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. It is an island in the Oslo fjord which has been used by the youth organization AUF, of the Norwegian labour party. The island has been central to the Norwegian labour party going back all the way to the 1930s when the Labour Party first began holding power for extended periods. It is a tradition with summer camp for politically involved youth. The leader of the Labour Party and thus often the prime minister of Norway would usually visit this island and speak to the youth. The current NATO leader, Jens Stoltenberg, former prime minister of Norway, was once a AUF leader spending his summers on this island.
It may seem ironic that I joined the labour party youth organization while being more of a political right winger. But I suppose this is a bit like how gay people who have not yet come out of the closet date women. I was also not quite ready to flag my political beliefs, but I was still very much interested in politics so I joined AUF. It was a great way of learning about. And admittedly the fact that they had free pizza and cola every Friday was a significant contributor to that choice.
So I did in fact spend part of my teenager summer on this island where this horrible massacre happened. It was a pretty cool place. I met a lot of great people, even if I admittedly disagreed politically with pretty much all of them. All of them were basically radical socialists and I was more of a libertarian. I could not help but think that they were completely detached from reality.
In retrospect I realize that I was almost entirely blind to so many things important to socialists, progressives, liberals and others. That is why I can in many ways relate to conservatives today. It is not always easy to see. This was the first time I met openly gay teenagers. I remember being quite bothered by them making out right next to me in the morning while I was trying to eat my breakfast. That is human nature, I suppose. And keep in mind Norway is not a religious conservative country and I did not get taught to hate or dislike gay people.
We often had practice speaking to crowds to prepare yourself for political debates and speech. I remember one of the gay guys got on the podium to have a speech to all of us. He began by loudly proclaiming that he was gay. Everybody clapped and cheered him on loudly. I didn’t get it. I was an idiot. I thought to myself: “Why are they cheering for him being gay? How is that a special accomplishment?”
I could not connect the dots. At the time I did not realize that they were all cheering for him because he was brave enough to announce to a whole crowd that he was gay and that he was not ashamed of that. But he already looked so confident to me that I could not at that moment comprehend that it had ever been a struggle for him. I was simply emotionally immature. I had not reflected on or really understood what difficulties and challenges he must have gone through, even in a very liberal country like Norway.
Today I use that experience to remind people that many conservatives simply don’t grasp that saying “I am proud to be gay” or “I am proud to be black” is a way to assert to the world that you are not afraid to express to the world who you are. You are not ashamed of who you are, no matter what society or others may try to tell you. But back then I was more concerned with the fact that I understood supply and demands and the beauty of market economics and these seemingly irrational and emotional people did not understand it.
The reality is that while I may have had more technocratic knowledge, I had understood a lot less about humanity and the human condition than they had.
A Die-Hard Advocate for Capitalism Goes to America
I was reading Adam Smith the Wealth of Nations, Milton Friedman and many other advocates of free market economics in my early 20s. I visited the first time US back in 1995. I was blown away by the high rises of New York. The big cars. The wide selection of stuff. The energy. This was the land of my dreams I thought. My native Norway seemed old and out of date. Social democracy in my mind was almost like some Soviet anachronism.
Thus in my early 20s I went to the US to study for a master’s degree, with a strong intention of getting a job afterwards and staying. Ironically, this was the beginning of my path towards becoming a social democrat and a monarchist.
So many of my idealized concepts of capitalism were utterly shattered in the US. For example, I thought health care would work much better in a capitalist society than in social democratic Norway. Americans may wonder what my issues were, but I think reality is that no country has an ideal health care system, and Norway was no exception. You can never give everybody what they want. But I had nothing to compare with. And with a lack of comparison I thought our system was bad.
To be fair, it is not like I thought everything was bad about the US health care system. I remember meeting very competent doctors that in some cases gave me better help than I had gotten in Norway. But it quickly became apparent to me that the for-profit motive of American health care wreaked havoc on the system. I increasingly began to notice how often the advice and help I got often had very little to do with my needs as a patient and more to do with giving a sense of caring for the customer and making profit. For example, the amount of pill-pushing was disturbing. This was almost 20 years ago now, but already then it was clear to me that something like the later opioid crisis would sooner or later hit the US. The abuse of pain medication was evident already then. They way doctors prescribed and pushed pain medication with almost reckless abandon was very evident.
The other irony was that I thought social democracy is what caused bureaucracy. Yet bureaucracy in the fully socialized health care in Norway is frankly a marvel of simplicity and efficiency compared to the utter mess that encountered in the totally privatized system in the US. The amount of paper work, and incompatible standards was frankly shocking to me.
All my dealings with the US system across different states had reinforced this impression time and again. This naive idea I had that the market would streamline and simplify simply did not pan out in reality.
Culture and Consumerism
Before coming to the US, I had thought of society as simply about making efficient systems. My own language, Norwegian, I viewed as just a waste of time. Let us all just speak English. America seemed to deliver on this kind of front. Massive stores like Wall-Mart were a study in efficiency in rationality. Every side aisle has one category of products. Shopping felt so easy in the US, and you could get anything from guns, video games and eggs in the same store. Was this not the future?
While marveling over this consumer paradise, I gradually got hit by reality. There was a cost to all this that I had not seen or maybe did not want to see. Even small American towns were just buried in traffic. The small town I lived in with just 50, 000 inhabitants had an 8-lane highway running through it. That seemed nuts by Norwegian standards. Without a car, I actually needed quite a number of bus changes to get to Wall-Mart.
Then there were the city centers themselves. They were basically dead. There was not much interesting going on downtown. It was not a place you went to really do anything.
I realized that what you ended up with was a place with no culture, belonging or sense of space. There was just massive places of consumption. And I began to notice that my American friends all also seemed to mainly care about consumption. Stuff to buy. What big house they would want after college. The type of car. Nobody went anywhere in their vacation. Many often just worked more so they could buy more stuff. Was this really the end station? Was this really what life was about?
As a European I knew there was other things in life. At least I had a former life where I had traveled all around Europe, seen old castles in Britain, been to art museums such as Salvador Dalí museum in Spain, made famous in the Netflix series Money Heist. I had never cared that much for Norwegian nature, but when you live in a place that is entirely flat with just rows and rows of identical houses, you suddenly realize that you are missing something. I began missing looking out over the Oslo fjord in summer time.
Increasingly when talking to Americans, I realized they all knew a lot more about consumer products and medical drugs than me, but their knowledge of geography, history, politics or whatever seemed nonexistent.
“Why Do you Talk Norwegian?”
I think the moment or perhaps one of the moments that made me wake up or snap out of the American delusion I was living in was when a Chinese-American friends asked my why I was speaking Norwegian to my friend. I had a Vietnamese-Norwegian friend in the US. For us it was natural to speak Norwegian as we where both from Norway and that was our native tongue. It was also kind of funny, because most of my American friends seemed to think that everybody in Norway was blond and that Norwegians with immigrant heritage such as Vietnamese-Norwegians could simply not exist.
From the American perspective, I was living in American now. Things like my original language were just unnecessary vestiges to dispense with. I think in a later conversation the same person has expressed puzzlement that Norway kept such an old fashioned thing like Monarchy around. “Why don’t you become more like us? Why don’t you get a president instead?” I was asked.
It caused me to reflect. If he had asked me when I first arrived in America, I might in fact have agreed. But after seeing what I perceived as a kind of emptiness of American existence, I felt less certain. I was reminded of what I had read about Norwegian author Knut Hamsun and his take on American society. He had lived in the US in the late 1800s before coming home to Norway. He had railed against American consumerism and empty existence. This focus on making more money, buying ever more. The constant buying and selling. The hustle. American TV was like that. I was used to lots of ads on Norwegian TV, but nothing had prepared me for the constant blasting of ads on American TV. It felt like TV was nothing but ads with some sprinkles of actual programming thrown in between the ads.
Everywhere you went it felt like life was all about buying and consuming. That happiness was a product you could buy for 9.99. All Americans seemed to have favorite brands in every category. The consciousness about being a consumer and buying things and thinking about buying stuff was increasingly disturbing. And I say that as someone who went to America with rather materialist ambitions. Nobody seemed to ever doing anything remotely cultural. Nobody I knew seemed to read books, newspapers or anything.
If this was the future. If this was what modern society looked like, I became increasingly convinced that this is not what I wanted. It is what made me realize that your history, your traditions, etc., matter. Society cannot simply be an efficient pipeline of consumer products. The Norwegian monarchy, I realized, was part of that. It was part of me. It was part of what it meant to be Norwegian. Every year I had celebrated Norwegian constitution day on the 17th of May. We dress up in traditional outfits and children march with bands waving flags. In Oslo all the schools would march up to the Royal Palace and everybody would wave to the king and he would wave back to them.
While maybe it was old fashioned, I knew it was not all just empty gestures. It meant something. The grandfather of the current king, Haakon VII, had declined to be King unless a united people voted for him. An overwhelming majority had chosen him as king. He was not of Norwegian origin but he had chosen “All for Norway” as his motto. When German forces invaded Norway in 1940 in the blitz move and he had to flee, they gave him a chance to surrender. It would have made life a lot easier for him. It would have been a lot more convenient than being stuck deep in the Norwegian forest in wintertime while German Wehrmacht soldiers were closing in on him. The the most powerful and well-trained army the world had ever seen was closing in on him and his defense was just fresh 19-year-old recruits in the 2nd Guard company. Military training was down to less than 30 days in Norway at the time, and they did not even have that. German soldiers had something like 2–3 years of training.
Many of the people around him told him that surrender was the only sensible option. With surrender, Norway could perhaps enjoy some leniency and understanding from the Germans. But he chose the hard path. He may not have been Norwegian by blood, but he knew his duty.
Norway had an exile government that retreated to London and continued the struggle for Norwegian independence from there, but it was the King who, with his speeches through the radio, became our rallying cry. He was our Winston Churchill. And he could not even speak proper Norwegian.
The Great Unifier
The king demonstrated time and again that he was the great unifier. In the 1920s Norway could easily have spiraled into civil war as the Norwegian labour party gained power for the first time. It was a party that had been explicitly communist an part of Komintern, meaning they swore allegiance to the USSR. Norwegian conservatives were horrified. They expected the King would never allow these communist revolutionaries to gain power. Revolutionaries who had explicitly stated that they wanted to end the Norwegian monarchy.
But this all ended when Haakon VII invited the Norwegian labour party to the palace to ask them to form a government. He said publicly, “I am also the king of the communists,” and with that he made it clear that he was king of all Norwegian no matter what political affiliation they had.
Our current King Harald has echoed that sentiment. In times when anti-immigration sentiments began running high, he made it clear in one of his speeches that he was after all from an immigrant family himself. At other times he made it clear that whether boy loves a boy or a girl loves a girl, they are also just as much Norwegian as anybody else. His father Olav showed solidarity with his countrymen in hard economic times by serving canned fish balls (sort of like meat balls but made of fish) at the Royal Palace. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, he showed solidarity with the people by traveling on the tram rather than using his car with private chauffeur.
This has been a constant reminder all through my life and through the history I have read. The Monarchy has always put the country first. A politician will often have more petty concerns such as getting themselves elected, or firing up their base. The kings of Norway have proven again and again that they understand their role as a unifying force across people who can often be divided on many important questions.
And this is not unique to Norway. When Norway declared independence from Sweden in 1905, the Swedish conservative party was outraged and called to have the army mobilized and Norway invaded. It was the cool-headed thinking of the Swedish king that prevented war. Politicians often think in short terms. A king sits for a lifetime, and thinks more long-term. As the king said, “If we bring force upon Norway, there will be blood blood between our peoples for generations to come.” That Norway abandoned Sweden and him both offended him and saddened him. Yet he would not risk bad blood between brother people.
When dictator Franco gave power over to King Carlos, he surprised Fascists by restoring Spanish democracy. Of course not all kings are good kings, and they make their mistakes. But this old institution has in many countries proven itself capable of keep countries united and anchored for generations. A lot of this is tied down to tradition. Once you begin a strong legacy it tends to endure. A weak one does not. If you have a good Monarchy, you should not so eagerly throw it on the trash heap of history.
The election of Donald Trump or Obama for that matter, shows that a president can almost never be a unifying force for a country. They win after a fierce political battle where they or their followers demonize the other side to win. It would be naive to assume you can step into the role of unifier after that. A king of a queen does not need to fight a political battle that alienates half the country.
Why I am a Social Democrat
The reason why I am a social democrat is ironically related to why I am monarchist. It is this recognition that life is about more than just efficient market calculations. It is hard to quantify what a Monarchy means in numbers. Likewise it is hard to quantify what it means to know that you will always have access to health care no matter how poor you get or that your children can always take higher education free of charge.
I will not expand more on this here as this is a big topic onto itself. This will have to be primarily a story about Monarchy.