Norway — luxurious serfdom?

Norway is now among the five wealthiest countries in Europe even though the sky-high expectations of the early years of North Sea oil exploration have not been realised. In the recent past it was seriously believed that when the oil started flowing, all Norwegians would be wealthy and the country could allocate large sums of money to third world aid.

Realism has descended on these would-be Northern sheiks since then; not because the reserves of oil and gas are smaller than expected — on the contrary, new oil and gas strikes are being made all the time — but because this new-found wealth does not penetrate down to the grass-roots:

. . . The petroleum reserves on the Norwegian shelf belong to the country and the profit gained from it is intended for the benefit of the whole community. However, the man in the street doesn’t see the riches which are supposed to be flooding the country. He is told repeatedly that the authorities are short of money, that hospitals must be closed for lack of funds, that municipal transport services are being reduced, that dues and charges must increase and that pay increases cannot compensate the increase in cost of living . . .  It is admittedly difficult to understand that seriously sick people have to sleep in hospital corridors in such a rich country and that all services are poor but expensive . . .
(“How does Norway spend her oil revenues?”. The Norwegian Journal of Commerce and Shipping, August 1984 )

It is a common belief in Norway, as elsewhere, that the state operates in the interest of the ordinary man and woman: “the state is every one of us”. The Norwegian state has certainly been very active in the oil fields of the North Sea, both through its own oil company Statoil and when it comes to extracting tax revenues from the foreign companies operating there. The high taxation and stringent licencing demands of the Norwegian government are resented by the big oil companies; ESSO, for example, reckons that the average tax and royalty burden during the production life of a field is 80 per cent or more. Another grievance is the so-called Sliding Scale which allows the government to take back 60 per cent of a company’s licence to operate in a field if a commercial development is made.

It is believed there are vast reserves of oil and gas under the Norwegian continental shelf as yet unexploited, but most of this is not “economically viable” at the moment. Most of these are in deeper water in the harsher weather conditions further north. Because of the higher inputs of technology and know-how necessary to operate these fields, they are unprofitable compared with present fields where extraction is a lot less complicated.

The primary object of the state — in Norway as elsewhere — is not to look after the man in the street but to see that the economy is run in the interest of the capitalist class. How, then, is the Norwegian government planning to spend their gains? It could be used to help Norwegian firms setting up subsidiaries abroad or buying up foreign companies. A debate has also been going on as to whether Norwegian banks abroad should be allowed to use these currency reserves for investment. In other words, the income will be used in the service of capital to yield profit and interest.

The Scandinavian countries have for a long time been considered to have a high standard of living, to be fairly “egalitarian” and to be much more “socialist” (meaning state controlled) than many other Western nations. Certainly a visitor coming to Norway, even before the oil was found, would get an impression of space, cleanliness and relative affluence. Homes are on the average more spacious and of a higher quality than in Britain. Home “ownership” is high (74 per cent, mostly financed through the state operated House Bank) and 19 per cent rent privately. Public places like cinemas and railway stations seem luxurious and clean compared to Britain.

Norway has gone from being a “backward” country in economic terms to an ultra modem society within the last hundred years. Industrialisation did not take off until just before the turn of the century and many parts of the country remained relatively unmodernised until well into this century. For the many landless people scratching a very meagre living working for the big landowners, employment in industry offered a chance to improve their situation a little. A relic of Norway’s not so distant agrarian past can be seen today in the fact that they still have a distinct Farmers’ Party.

For people who view social differences in terms of “middle” and “working” class, these appear to be a lot less distinct than in Britain. There are no private and council estates; a manager and a factory worker are likely to live next door, have similar interests and homes. This is not to say that competition and snobbery do not exist; on the contrary, people are very much aware of who has got the slightly better hi-fi or the more up-market car. But in one respect, it is easier to see class relations as they really are in Norway for it is not such a problem explaining that the “middle” and “working” class are really the same, forced to sell their mental and physical energies to an employer in order to live — that is to say, they are all working class.

Only a small percentage of Norway’s firms are state owned, but on the other hand, the two largest. Norsk Hydro (oil. petrochemicals. aluminium, fertiliser) and Statoil, belong to the state, as well as two armaments companies with a very large turnover. It is in the interest of the capitalist class to control certain industries and services vital to them all. This is why telecommunications, the postal services, transport, energy sources (coal, oil, electricity) and armaments factories tend to be nationalised in a lot of countries, including Norway.

The standard of living may be much higher in Norway today than a few decades ago. But Norwegians still work their lives away to pay for their homes, their car loans, their educational loans and all the while mental illnesses are on the increase. The before mentioned article puts it as follows:

The standard of living is high in Norway, but most Norwegians are heavily indebted even so. Many live in a kind of luxurious serfdom, depending on a secure income and the benevolence of their banker. Their freedom to move about, to change their life situation, is often renounced for the shallow benefits of keeping abreast with the Joneses.

Torgun Bullen