Something Rotten in the State of Norway?

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in the Sunday Island on August 13, 2011 


Mankind cannot bear too much reality. People who are unhappy in the now of where they are, delude themselves that there is a better society elsewhere. Utopia might be located in an after-life or it might be in a different part of this planet, or another time in history. I recall that in the 1960s Professor Joan Robinson was telling us that Mao had it all sorted and we should try to emulate Communist China. C Wright Mills told us capitalism was finished and Castro had found a way to make Marxism human – look what a great health service Cuba has! In the 70s, I studied a fat compendium of essays arguing that worker participation in Tito’s Yugoslavia could teach Britain how to solve its industrial problems. For a while, Costa Rica, which does not have a standing army, seemed heaven on earth.


Only yesterday, I read in Huffington Post that Bhutan had all the answers, with its concept of Gross National Happiness. Someone commented: “I am Bhutanese, and I think the Bhutanese government has been milking this happiness thing for all it’s worth… The Bhutanese government should realize the special nature of their situation before it goes around promoting resolutions, or telling other countries how they should rank happiness in their list of priorities”.

I recall reading of a survey that said Ireland was the happiest place on earth. That was before the economy went down the toilet and the industrial scale of the Catholic Church’s abuses was proved beyond doubt.

My personal knowledge of Scandinavia is limited to a brief visit to Denmark (another one-time contender for happiest nation on the globe) in the early 80s. It seemed to be entirely populated by sensible teachers and social workers in home-made clothing (apart from the raving drunks on the street). My knowledge of Sweden was gained from Ingmar Bergman films – not much joy there.

When I was blogging on Open Salon, exchanges with a blogger calling himself Norwonk were always pleasant. He was a fan of the great Tommy Cooper and was grateful when I introduced him to the works of Al Read. I was surprised to learn that British comedy was popular in Norway, with Norwegian versions of Steptoe and Son and Hancock’s Half Hour.

Norwonk was understandably shocked by recent events in Norway: “I suppose I should give you some kind of unique Norwegian insight into the terror attack but I’m sorry: I’ve got nothing. This attack makes no sense to any sane person. There’s a political motive, to be sure, but not one which sane people would identify with. I just hope this is a signal to my country to not change at all. Sure, if there are some simple and sensible measures we can take to improve our security, we should do so. But frankly, I doubt it. ‘’

There is a good deal of delusion about the success of the Scandinavian social democracies. It is true that in Norway women occupy 40% of important jobs. It is true that justice minister Knut Storberget and children’s minister Audun Lysbakken are able, like ordinary citizens, to take generous time-off for paternity leave.

“This tranquil and most peaceful of all communities” is, nevertheless, a foolish cliché.

Scandinavian crime novels have become very popular and reveal the dark underbelly. The Norwegian author Jo Nesbo, like many of the Scandinavian crime writers, was an investigative reporter, and the Breivik story would probably not have surprised him. Robert Fox wrote in The Week: “The truth is Norway, like Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, still has the traumas of the past to contend with – the shadow of Nazi occupation, collaboration and resistance – as well as the huge recent changes in society, including the sudden impact of new immigration and the new political Islam.” Norway is not immune to crime, corruption and racism.

In addition, Norway has lost its international ethical niche. Norway got rich because of oil but has somehow managed to avoid the opprobrium attached to other oil explorers and exploiters. The Government Pension Fund takes surplus funds from Norwegian petroleum. The fund accounts for just over one percent of all global stocks. The Fund’s Advisory Council on Ethics was established 19 November 2004 by royal decree. Companies are excluded from the fund if their conduct is judged unethical.

Nevertheless, Norway remains one of the biggest shareholders in the controversial Indonesian logging and palm oil group Sinar Mas, with, according to its most recent published accounts, a holding of more than $16m in Sinar Mas’s palm oil arm, Golden Agri Resources.

The Norwegian government also invests in Burma, gaining profit from the human rights abuses of the totalitarian military government which employs slave labour and summary executions to do business.  According to a report by Earth Rights: “The Norwegian people, through their government’s sovereign wealth fund, have USD $4.7 billion invested in 15 companies – hailing from eight countries – involved in the oil and gas sector in Burma.”
“Apart from direct human rights impacts, the Shwe gas and oil transport pipelines appear to be exacerbating rising ethnic tensions in Burma’s contested borderlands, specifically in the ethnically diverse territories of Shan State.” The Shwe gas consortium and several other companies in the Fund are engaged in onshore infrastructure construction in Burma, an activity that the Norwegian Ethics Council itself determined poses an unreasonably high risk of leading to human rights violations.

Although it has a large aid programme and strongly supports the UN, in reality, Norway has joined the club of rich nations exploiting the planet for their own benefit. There is a failure to regulate Norwegian corporations. Mark Curtis wrote in the Guardian: “Norwegian weapons sales have tripled since 2000, reaching GBP 336 million in 2007. Norwegian arms were used by the US and Britain during the invasion of Iraq, while a lack of controls have allowed high explosives to be sold to the US and re-exported to Israel.” Norway has a presence in Afghanistan and Libya.

National Geographic asks: “Why Is Japan Whaling’s Bogeyman When Norway Hunts Too?” Claire Bass, marine mammals programme manager with the WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals), says other whaling nations appear to get off lightly compared with Japan. “I think it’s part of the strategy of countries like Norway to stand behind Japan and use them to take most of the flak”. It is strange that, in the face of opposition from around the world, a rich nation like Norway is one of a small number of countries actively engaged in commercial whaling, despite the negligible contribution it makes to the economy, and despite, according to documents released by WikiLeaks, President Obama putting pressure on Norway during his Nobel Peace Prize visit.

While one has every sympathy for the innocent Norwegian citizens who suffered in the recent outrageous event, one is also dismayed by the opportunity it afforded to stoke the national myth and dangerous self-delusion that Norway is usually a paradise on earth and that the nation behaves like a paragon of virtue in the ugly reality of the world.


Click to access Broken-Ethics.pdf