July 14, 2016
A Viking perspective on last month’s Congressional sit-in
by George Lakey
As a young adult I was arrested at a civil rights sit-in — part of my participation in a movement that again and again forced local, state, and federal governments to acknowledge the rights of black people in the face of opposition by economic elites. I also participated in the successful direct action movements that spun off in the seventies, like those opposing nuclear power and demanding LGBT rights.
Having experienced the power of such movements first-hand, I’ve been surprised by the rigidity many liberals seem to have learned in subsequent decades, insisting that elections and lobbying are the only suitable methods of influencing our future.
The sit-in last month by US Congress members in the well of the House chamber was a reminder of this source of power that usually lies under the political surface. We might have expected such action to come from young #BlackLivesMatter activists, or Dream Defenders — representatives of a recent rise in nonviolent militancy among the young. But this dramatic action wasn’t taken by grassroots activists, it was taken by members of the United States Congress.
Two ingredients of the sit-in seem to me to have particular significance. The first is that, while we generally assume elected officials have no need to act up like ordinary citizens, these insiders clearly believed they needed to take direct action. The second ingredient is that they were led by Rep. John Lewis, a living link to the civil rights movement of the early sixties. His participation reminds us of a legacy we too often ignore.
Surely not in Denmark!
Both facts take fresh significance when seen from the perspective of the successful struggles for economic democracy waged in Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden in the twentieth century. As I reveal in my new book Viking Economics, out from Melville House this week, those four countries occupy the top of the international charts for equality, individual freedom, highly functional democratic governance, and shared prosperity. Just as important, they got to their enviable positions through turning, again and again, to nonviolent direct action to force the economic elite to give way to the will of the people.
For example, the Danes faced an offensive from their economic elite in the 1980s. Like the “Reagan Revolution” in the US and “Thatcherism” in the UK, the Danish right wing wanted to take back gains that the people had won in previous decades. Claiming that prosperity was in jeopardy without drastic change, elite-inspired politicians initiated legislative proposals whose outcome would be austerity.
Instead of resisting to keep what they had, the labor movement wisely launched a counter-offensive, campaigning for a four percent pay hike, a thirty-five-hour work week, and increased taxes on corporations!
When the government tried to impose a settlement favoring employers and ban the strike, 100,000 workers gathered outside the Parliament building in Copenhagen — a huge number for a small country. Workers barred lawmakers from going into the building and delayed debate on the government’s legislation.
Municipal workers refused to clear Copenhagen streets of the overnight snowfall, while other Danes slogged through the snow to join the protest. Wildcat strikes erupted in many sectors, and the illegal, nonviolent strike spread until 320,000 workers joined (in a country of only five million).
The government decided to urge compromise, persuaded the business elite to make concessions, and largely gave up the Reagan/Thatcher agenda.
If the Nordics have needed to take to the streets on a mass scale, what about the US? As I argue through this and other vivid stories in Viking Economics, we’re not so different. Power-holders anywhere can be very, very stubborn. Yet they can also be forced to yield to principled resistance. As John Lewis knows perfectly well, the people wield a power that can overcome. It’s time the rest of us gained this knowledge, too.
Viking Economics is on sale now. Buy your copy here or at your neighborhood independent bookstore.
George Lakey is a Visiting Professor at Swarthmore College. He has written for Waging Nonviolence and Common Dreams, among other publications, and is the author of many books, including Viking Economics, published by Melville House in July 2016.