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EUI - Navigating the Atlantic Crossing: A study of the role US influence played in Scandinavian social democratic politics, 1948-68

Awarded: NOK 2.1 mill.

Project Number:


Project Period:

2021 - 2024

Subject Fields:

Social democracy is at the core of Norwegian political identity. Every political party identifies with it in, one way or another. And yet, the history of Norwegian social democracy is defined by two unsolved problems: What kind of regime was postwar social democracy? How unique was this regime in the global context? To answer the former question, I take up one of the most debated problems in the history of modern Norway; namely, the problem of democratic versus technocratic government. My goal is to explore how this problem appeared in labour policy, where ideals of industrial democracy clashed with those of technical rationalisation; and in regional development, where experts and politicians from the capital endeavoured to "modernise" peripheral areas, and in which the tension between popular sovereignty and expert rule was tangible. Furthermore, I will study how politics in these two fields were connected to Norway's encounter with the third world in the 1960s. Decolonisation released great engagement in Norway for the new states. A number of academics, bureaucrats and experts travelled from Norway in order to take part in the "modernisation" of countries like Kenya, Bangladesh and Sudan. For passionate socialists Africa and India appeared as spaces where socialism could rediscover its purpose. Concerning the question of how unique the Norwegian social democratic regime was in an international context, I will attempt to respond by looking at how the country's policy on labour regional development were connected to transnational ideas and impulses. Was Norwegian industrial "modernisation" and rationalisation a form of import, or domestically produced? How about regional planning and development thought? As I will demonstrate, these were both combinations of national and international impulses. What kind of combination was this? How were transnational ideas made use of in the Norwegian project of "modernisation", from the workplace to the physical landscape? The 1970s was a time of global crisis. The oil crisis led to economic trouble, and systems of economic governance that had been constructed during the postwar era were struggling to tackle the problems they faced. In Norway, too, this was a time of change. Teenage rebellion, women's liberation and the new left signalled cultural change. The state planning system proved inflexible in the encounter with new economic challenges. In the seventies, social democracy went through a change in its character which arguably ended with the emergence of neoliberalism in Norway under Kåre Willoch. This change is reflected in the two fields I focus on. In labour policy the seventies was an era of great reform, and for new initiatives to democratise the workplace. In regional policy the social democratic state met with widespread resistance represented by Ottar Brox' famous "What is happening to Northern Norway?" Internationally, too, resistance to the governing elite and demands for democratisation were widespread, which defined the position of Norwegians working abroad. Thus, my project is in many ways a story about the life of social democracy in Norway, from socialist optimism under reconstruction to doubt and attempted reform in the seventies. During the entirety of this period, democratising forces clashed with those of rule of expertise and paternalism. It's a unique Norwegian story, but also a story with a number of similarities and connections to those of Europe, America and the third world. Therefore, I will attempt to tell it as an international story of how global political problems of democracy and socialism were confronted in Norway.

I aim to study the role US influence played in Scandinavian social democratic politics in the postwar era. More specifically, I will discuss the impact of US foreign policy, primarily the work of US-led international organisations, had on the three Scandinavian countries’ social democratic parties and their policy-making. My thesis will build on three methodological approaches: (1) a study of transnational contacts between American progressive actors and central Scandinavian social democrats; (2) a discussion of how political plans and projects were made in the social democratic parties, based on documents such as published party programs and minutes from party congresses; (3) an analysis of the way social democratic newspapers covered American politics. In this way, I aim to bring together different aspects of the US-Scandinavian relationship(s), consolidating transnational political contacts and trends, and national policy-making, in one multi-faceted narrative.

Funding scheme:

FRIHUMSAM-Fri hum og sam