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Extraordinary political opportunity for Quaker legacy of vision

Copenhagen Photo: Roman Boed / Flickr Creative Commons license

Not since the nineteen sixties have I seen within the U.S. a greater need for, and opportunity to serve with, the Quaker visionary impulse. 

The seventeenth century was another such a time. William Penn was one of the most famous visionaries, proposing a parliament of nations for Europe, while Germantown Quakers proposed the abolition of slavery. The visionary impulse shows up again and again, famously with Lucretia Mott’s feminism in the tumultuous mid-nineteenth century and the AFSC’s Speak Truth to Power in the midst of mid-twentieth century Cold War fears. 

Now we have a hugely polarized U.S., with the legitimacy of elective governance so shredded that millions leave the major political parties and millions more don’t bother to vote at all.  Even some right-wingers routinely attack the economic elite who, according to the polls, join politicians at the bottom of public esteem.  The Princeton study (Google it by adding the word “oligarchy”) gives scholarly sanction to the common observation that the system is broken.  Why not envision a better one?

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, Philadelphia Museum of Art, via Wikimedia Commons

The Quaker legacy of vision has several variants: incremental next steps within existing power relations, a huge and radical leap, and, somewhere in the middle, a proximate vision of significant change.

Quakers have been fond of incremental next steps, often taking the form of pilot projects: schools that rely on experiential education, settlement houses and mental hospitals where respect is the norm. The FCNL and AFSC often advocate incremental steps, designed to be implemented in the shorter run. 

“Speak Truth to Power” (1955) was a significant departure from previous AFSC papers on foreign and military policy, because the study proposed transforming the U.S. security system from reliance on military defense to nonviolent defense.  The Service Committee followed it up in 1967 with a book giving more detail on what a nonviolent security system would look like, “In Place of War.” 

The books were prescient; it would be decades before mainstream political scientists discovered that civil resistance/nonviolent action could actually be so powerfully coercive that it could take on military opponents and win.  In the 1950s and ‘60s, this Quaker vision was of the radical leap variety, analogous to the vision of environmentalists who now imagine their nation going carbon neutral.

Neither incremental nor radical: a fresh opportunity for “a proximate vision?”

While William Penn had his radical leap moments, he also hatched what I call a “proximate vision,” the kind that goes well beyond incremental steps.  In the Holy Experiment, Penn set up a state on the U.S. frontier – Pennsylvania – that refused to have an army, initially respected the indigenous people, abolished most capital punishment, and even dared to tolerate religious differences.  We can criticize its limitations today and imagine a more radical departure. For its time it was a proximate vision: a major leap forward that still today would be visionary in some parts of the world (ask the Taliban or your local right-wing militia).

A proximate vision is one that is substantial enough to require a power shift to implement.  Penn had that: the shift of the colony’s immediate control from the King to himself.  Today, if we were to propose a proximate vision, we would need to think about how to engineer a power shift.  I’ll get to that.

Trondheim, Norway by Alexander Schukin via Flickr CC license

Happily, I’ve run across an analogy to the Holy Experiment, a laboratory operating successfully in the real world that aligns to a remarkable degree with the Quaker testimonies of equality, stewardship, community, and peace.  The laboratory springs from an unlikely place: the home of the famously bloody ancient Vikings.  What further makes the spot unlikely is that a century ago Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden looked in some ways like the U.S. does today: massive poverty, a huge wealth gap, and governments that pretended to be democratic (parliaments with free elections) but in fact were run by the economic elites. 

Unlikely or not, a laboratory for trying stuff out claims our attention when it produces results. 

For the Nordic experiment, the results are in.

The 20 million or so who now live in the home of the Vikings are at the top of the charts for equality.  In 2008, when the U.S. and some European countries faced financial crises, Iceland suffered a collapse of world-historical proportions. The people couldn’t even get money out of their ATMs. In response, Icelanders threw out their government, put their irresponsible bankers in jail, and put themselves on a program that created not only a rapid financial recovery but narrowed their previously narrow income gap even more!

Reykjavik Iceland by Marcella Emt via Flickr CC license

When researching my new book “Viking Economics” I was especially struck by the refusal of tiny Iceland (320,000) to accept the neo-liberal prescription of the International Monetary Fund, to which it turned when its economy went bust.  One of the leading Icelandic economists told me that the new Icelandic government, backed by a mass movement, refused to accept the austerity program the IMF tried to insist on – the program that is so popular among the economic elites in both the US and Europe. 

Instead, Icelanders increased their safety net, reduced taxes on workers and increased taxes on the rich, kept families in their homes even when they couldn’t pay their mortgages, and maintained free higher education and other features of what economists call the Nordic model.  The result was economic bounce-back and increasing equality.

The Nordics are also in the top tier of the charts on stewardship.  This summer Norway moved its goal for carbon neutrality by 2050 to 2030, and Copenhagen wins awards as the world’s most climate-responsive capitol.  All four countries fiercely protect their natural environment and Norwegians long ago passed laws against buying farms for any other use besides agriculture and others forbidding strip malls.  Public transportation is subsidized so that all Norwegians, even in the largest cities, have easy access to nature. 

None of this is easy. It sometimes requires tough choices among competing values.  Should Iceland extend its development of hydroelectric power into the mountain wilderness in order to send clean energy to fossil-fuel dependent Europe?  Icelanders are fighting about that choice now.  In 2000, the Norwegian government fell over a conflict in whether to ramp up its water power to meet its growing energy needs.  Norwegians go toe-to-toe over whether to continue to extract oil from the Arctic, although their global pension fund has now completely divested from coal mines and the Alberta tar sands.

The Nordics promote community globally as well as within their own countries, by being among the top contributors (per capita) to the UN and other aid programs.  Sweden is number one in Europe for taking in refugees from the Syrian civil war; even before the latest influx one in five Swedes was an immigrant.  Lutheran bishops attend services at mosques and there is a lively effort in all four countries to work against racism and homophobia; the Nordics do not deny the prejudice in their midst. 

We see the same pattern of paying attention both externally and internally when it comes to the concern for peace. The four countries get high ratings for internal peace; crime is very low and incarceration policies are among the most advanced in the world.  Sweden and Iceland stay out of NATO, and Norway famously practices conflict resolution in tough international conflicts.  (The new Broadway play “Oslo” is the story of one such Norwegian intervention.)

How did they reach this level of achievement?

Norwegians tell me they are “a nation of complainers.”  I have yet to meet someone who believes they live in a utopia.  They acknowledge the favorable conditions they’ve had and that any laboratory needs to do breakthrough experiments.  We Americans would be mistaken, however, to dismiss their work as irrelevant to us. 

Oslo by Carlos Bryant via Flickr CC license

At a research institute in Oslo I found a photograph of a delegation of Chinese in the same conference room where I was interviewing researchers.  I expressed my surprise to the researchers because of the vastly different scale and degree of diversity in China: “Why did their government send them here to learn from you?” 

The researchers said they asked the same thing, and the Chinese economists and policy makers said scale and diversity matter more for some policies than for others, and they were finding they could learn a lot from Norway’s model. 

These were pragmatic Chinese, learning from pragmatic Nordic researchers, both very interested in what works when it comes to solving vexing economic problems that impact people’s lives.  I would pray for Americans to become so pragmatic!

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”  Friends could give a fatigued, depressed and anxious American people a hand by pointing out a destination that would lift us up and rebuild our self-confidence.  That’s the purpose of a proximate vision: a destination that motivates us to move out of our stuckness. 

Because what economists call the "Nordic model" has a track record of over half a century of shared prosperity, virtually abolishing poverty and giving their people more individual freedom than Americans enjoy, the model is plausible for us to use. It advances important Quaker testimonies and invites us to participate in the larger world in a fresh way, making the most of our positivity.

A power shift?

Viking EconomicsThe model does of course include a power shift, as proximate visions do.  A power shift opens the space for a proximate vision to be implemented.  In my book I tell the story of the nonviolent struggles successfully waged in the Nordic countries. In each of them the economic elite defended the status quo, sometimes by calling out the troops and killing nonviolent protesters.  For that matter, early Friends knew well how resistant the privileged can be to change; Friends had time in castle dungeons to pray on that. 

Penn, Gandhi, and King each worked with, and accomplished, a power shift – not a strange thing in the Quaker worldview, although some of us may be out of practice.  In fact, the direct action legacy is one of the gifts modern Friends can bring to the task of power shift. We can rely on the centeredness that comes from centuries of meeting resistance to a better way; Lucretia Mott would be proud of us.  Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) has been re-building the legacy skills in the process of forcing the seventh-largest bank in the nation out of financing mountaintop removal coal mining.  The skills are there, just as the Nordic example is there, waiting to be adapted to American conditions. 

The question is: do American Quakers want to lift up a visionary destination for our scared and confused compatriots, and save ourselves along with them?


About the Author

George Lakey has been a leader in the field of nonviolent social change since the 1960s and has published extensively for both activist and academic readers.

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