Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Danish Struggle

Lars Tønder
  University of Copenhagen

International new reports and social media postings suggest that the intellectual community in the United States and elsewhere is beginning to realize that Denmark no longer is what it once was: a progressive welfare state that cares for the weakest and that actively works to create greater equality at home and abroad.


Make no mistake. The much-discussed jewelry law that allows Danish police to confiscate jewelry and other valuables from asylum seekers is only the tip of the iceberg. The law itself certainly invokes images from Nazi Germany, but it will most likely be inconsequential, in part because the police do not have the training needed to assess the value of specific items, and in part because most asylum seekers have very few possessions when they arrive at the border. It is more accurate to see the jewelry law as a symbolic gesture. The law is designed to satisfy the government’s coalition partner—the xenophobic far-right Danish People’s Party—while forcing the opposition to accept anti-immigration reform or face the consequences at the next election. Any negative effect on the number of asylum seekers is an added bonus.


Far more consequential are the laws and provisions that accompany the jewelry law. Reinstatement of border control, lowering of the subsidies for asylum seekers, new obstacles to family reunification, and harsher citizenship requirements—these policies are the ones that will have the biggest impact; contrary to the current PR campaign orchestrated by the Danish foreign ministry, these policies are destined to make Denmark a global “leader” in anti-immigration reform.

One should not be naïve and think that these anti-immigration policies are detached from the government’s broader efforts to dismantle the Danish welfare state while pretending to save it from economic collapse. Not even the government’s own officials believe that such a collapse is imminent, and in fact there is every reason to believe that Danish economy will grow in the coming years. Still, Prime Minster Lars Løkke Rasmussen and his right-wing cohorts insist that the public finances must be squeezed in order to make space for tax cuts that nominally will go to both the rich and the poor, but most likely will benefit the former rather than the latter. To make ends meet, this approach has led (among other things) to an unprecedented attack on the universities, which have been targeted for some of the deepest budget cuts seen in the last 25 years. As a result, the next 2 – 3 years will see the closing of a number of so-called non-productive programs, including Classics, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish.

All this is to say that the narrowing of Danish culture and its openness to the world at large certainly is taking place. At the same time as the government both symbolically and physically is closing the country's borders for outsiders, it is preventing its own citizens from studying some of the world’s most important languages, cultures, and traditions. It is imperative that we recognize this for what it is: a broad-based ideological struggle seeking to undermine social critique and political transformation. The Steve Bell cartoon published in The Guardian on January 27, 2016 captures this better than most of what has been circulating in the last days and weeks.
Steve Bell on Denmark seizing refugees' assets.
What to do in the face of these developments? Some have pointed to Ai Weiwei’s decision to withdraw from a Danish art exhibition, and suggested that the international community should follow suite, boycotting Denmark BDS-style. If things continue the way they are now, this may very well become an option. But we are not there yet. While the government has been successful in passing its laws, there is still opposition to the policies imposed by it. 


Most recently, critique has been aired by Mogens Lykketoft, former chairperson of the Social Democrats and current President of the United Nations General Assembly, who in a leaked speech has called Prime Minister Løkke Rasmussen “a fraud,” accusing him of tricking the Danish electorate into accepting policies it does not want. Three of the Social Democratic Party’s MPs deflected from the party line and voted against the jewelry law, and prominent members of the government-party Venstre have openly criticized the party and either resigned or become members of competing parties. Moreover, one of the most successful parties in the June 2015 election—the newly founded “Alternativet” (The Alternative)—ran on a platform criticizing the capitalistic mode of production while calling for greater social inclusion and economic redistribution. A similar trend is present in Danish civil society where associations like “Welcome to Denmark,” “Refugees Welcome,” and others work to counteract the government’s policies, welcoming refugees into private homes, helping them to either escape registration by the Danish police or ensure that they get the legal and emotional support they need.

None of this is nearly as prominent and powerful as the forces driving the current anti-immigration reforms. Still, rather than seeing the current events as part of a unidirectional trend, the examples indicate that we must consider the Danish situation in terms that are different from the ones invoked by the Weiwei-supporters. Complexity theory suggests that tipping points are defined by certain thresholds that, once passed, qualitatively can alter the state of a given entity. Danish culture and society may well have reached such a threshold. But here’s the point: the transformation is not yet complete, and there is enough resistance to suggest that more must be done before we know the final outcome. The resistance, anger, and care for another Denmark suggest that we are in the midst of a multi-dimensional struggle, one that remains open for new input and redirection.


There is no doubt that the Danish intellectual community can do more in this regard. Like the Corbyn-opposition in England, Danish intellectuals must encourage the Left to set up a new economic council that can formulate the critiques and alternative ideas necessary to counter the current ideology of neoliberal austerity. Like the Podemos-party in Spain, Danish intellectuals must emphasize the need to reconnect with civil society through new modes of organization. Some of this is already happening, but the corporatist, consensus-seeking dimension of Danish politics is keeping alternative voices at bay, making them less powerful than they could have been. We need a change in political culture now more than ever.


Moreover, a struggle like the one envisioned here calls for more (not less) interaction with and from the outside world. To keep the system moving, and to alter its current composition and direction, we need scholars, intellectuals, politicians, and NGOs who are willing to both criticize and engage with Danish society through visits, debates, cartoons, and other interventions. My wager is that such interventions will encourage the progressive forces in Denmark, and thus help tipping the trend in the other direction, moving the policies toward greater equality and inclusion of asylum seekers and other people in need.

So friends: Do not turn your back to Denmark. We need you more than ever!


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