Sunday, February 27, 2011

In Defense of Reactionaries

Fresh Fish
Fresh Fish, Helsinki, 2003

Political ferment isn't just restricted to the Arab world. There's a great malaise in the air, and it's manifesting in all kinds of ways, all over the place. In Finland, it's taken the form of a populist reactionary party. They call themselves Perussuomalaiset, which could be translated to Ordinary Finns, or Regular Finns, or Basic Finns.

The PerSut are led by a guy called Timo Soini. He's rotund, cheerful, a great talker, and quite sharp. The latest polls have pushed it into the top four parties in the country, each with around 20% support. Traditionally, our politics have been dominated by the Social Democrats, the Centrists (sort of like the German Christian Democrats), and the Conservatives. Now there are four, and it's even possible that Timo Soini might be our next prime minister.

I just checked out their electoral platform. Not much there to check, actually. It boils down to turning back the clock about 30 years but keeping all the good stuff since then. Long on gripes and discontent, short on detail. Your predictable mix of nostalgia, xeno- and homophobia, backwoods patriotism, that sort of thing. It would be very easy to poke fun at it. Lots of people already do, so I won't join that party.

The thing is, there's a reason for the PerSut. They didn't appear from nowhere, suddenly appealing to our basest tribal instincts or such. They express a very real discontent with our political system.

Finland consistently comes up near the top in all kinds of global good-governance lists. According to them, we among the least corrupt countries in the world, with among the highest media freedom, highest happiness, and so on and so forth. And you know what? Our system stinks too.

Our political class loves backroom deals and mutual backscratching just as much as anyone else. Our previous prime minister's idea of political discourse was that matters that haven't been decided yet shouldn't be discussed in public. There's a massive slow-motion scandal ongoing that's revealed how political parties finance their electioneering by circulating money in all kinds of shady ways. I mean sure, the scale isn't the same as in many other countries—we're talking tens of thousands of euros instead of tens of millions—but it's the same kind of show. A cynical way of looking at it is that our politicians are just that much cheaper.

Since our previous economic nightmare in the early 1990's, we've built a new country. Globalized. Networked. Big on information technology. Reliant on a comprehensively-educated workforce. Non-bureaucratic. Agile. In many ways, it's worked. We're more prosperous than ever. Our young people have more opportunities all over the world than ever, if they have the initiative to take advantage of them. We weathered the great 2008 economic crash pretty well, considering. We even won the Eurovision song contest once, dammit. Helsinki is a lot nicer place to live now than it used to be. Plenty of good restaurants with all kinds of international cuisine, lots of stuff going on. It used to feel like a Russian provincial capital; now it feels almost like a city.

But we've left people behind. They're the ones voting for PerSut.

When I was a kid, there were some pretty clear expectations for how your life would turn out. There were a couple of relatively straightforward trajectories to choose from. One such trajectory goes something like this.

You go to school. At the age of 16, when you come out our world-famous primary education system, you pick a trade and go to vocational school. By 19 or 20, you have a trade. If you're a guy, you do your military service. Then you get a job at the paper mill, or the machine shop, or the shipyard, or wherever. You get married, have a couple of kids and a Labrador, buy a Volvo and a little house, work until you're 65, take a nice vacation in Torremolinos every year, maybe get a summer cabin and a boat while you're at it, retire, enjoy about 15-20 years of that, die, and get buried in the churchyard.

This didn't pan out.

Most of these people do have jobs, for sure. Our unemployment numbers aren't particularly bad. What they don't have is the story they were building their lives around. So they haven't been laid off, but they might be, any day now. The house they wanted to buy is suddenly out-of-reach expensive, or the one they bought has suddenly tanked in value, or developed a mold problem, or something else. The old certainties are gone, and nobody helped them deal with that. Instead, the politicians have been beaming with their radiator-grille smiles (thinking of you here, Alexander Stubb) and building a brave new Europe where Finland is just a little backwoods somewhere. They've lost control of their lives, and nobody's been listening.

So we get the PerSut—an angry coalition of disillusioned trade unionists abandoned by the Social Democrats, of small entrepreneurs left behind by the Conservatives, of working-class men—mostly, men—feeling useless, with no prospects, and no control over their destiny.

I don't think the PerSut are going to last. Not in a recognizable form anyway. There are too many divergent streams in it to make a functional political party—the small entrepeneurs and the trade unionists are at odds about pretty fundamental stuff, for example, and compromise isn't a strong point of PerSu activists and supporters, which is why they're PerSu in the first place. They are, however, going to make a big splash in the upcoming parliamentary elections. After that, they'll get a shot at real participation in governance. We have pretty robust institutions. I don't think they'll be able to do much damage to them.

How long they'll last remains to be seen. They'll be doing fine as long as they're an opposition protest movement. Once they have to start making policy, they will lose many of their supporters, because they won't be able to paper over the cracks anymore. They will either fragment, be subsumed into the older parties, or find a smaller but sustainable and more coherent political base to operate from.

The PerSut are not the problem. The problem is that our system stinks, and that we've left behind far too many people. That these people have a way to express that discontent within the system is only a good thing. Revolutions are great, but I prefer evolution if there's a possibility for it. I won't be voting for them—hell, I don't know if there'd be a place for me in PerSu Finland to start with—but they do deserve respect. At the very least, we ought to be listening better.

Also, they want to raise the capital-gains tax and slap a progression on it. I'm with them there.


  1. Inspired by this thoughtful post I also checked out some of their platform.

    I wholeheartedly agree with this part:

    "Perussuomalaisten mielestä yhteiskunnan ei tule merkittävästi ulkoistaa sosiaali- ja terveyspalveluita yksityisen sektorin tuottamiksi, sillä toisin kuin esimerkiksi kunnallisen palvelusektorin, yksityisen sektorin perustarkoitus on tuottaa voittoa omistajilleen."

    Part of the reason for that may be that I'm just reading Joel Bakan's The Corporation for a second time.

    On the other hand, there's pathetic populist stuff like "Huumeet kuriin" which should make any reasonably intelligent voter sick.

  2. That. One thing to be grateful for is that they haven't drunk the neoliberal Kool-Aid. It's their cultural and foreign policies—such as they are—that I have trouble swallowing. But that platform will only get scary if they become the hegemony, and I don't see that happening any time soon.

  3. A party like that called Reform rose in western Canada for similar reasons a couple of decades ago. They gained some traction in a few areas then fractured and most joined the traditional conservative party which was bloated with corrupt corporate types and not a few scandals.

    One of the former Reform leaders though is now Canada's prime minister with a minority government. This is their second term, the first comprised a majority. They are still pushing thinly disguised Reform platform points (mostly evangelical Christian and corporate) and are serious apologists for and adopters of much American foreign policy as well as culture. On the latter point for example their friends in media have been pushing for a Fox north television station to be carried as part of standard packages on cable TV and this government has been jigging the regulatory boards to make that a possibility among many similar things.

    The point is some of these parties may seem ridiculous when they start up but if a few involved learn the ropes quickly they can become the hegemony particularly if the old parties have become too fat to move with any agility.

  4. Fascinating to know that this left behind syndrome is there even in a country as homogeneous and affluent as yours. The going back in time 30 --or more--years is the part that is always difficult for me to relate to; but then I was an adult 30 years ago and I remember its faults more than its virtues, perhaps. As well go back to the days before the Great Wars, or the building of the pyramids. It can't happen, but it can provide food for entertaining fantasies, I suppose. Not sure actually attempting to enact them is going to be productive, however.

  5. @NellaLou: That's true. Which is all the more reason to listen to the concerns driving this discontent rather than sneering at the symptoms.

    Fortunately, ours aren't as nutty as all that. Their foreign policy is isolationist, and their economic policy—such as it is—social-democratic, and in a way a welcome backlash against the creeping corporatism we've been seeing.

    The part I have biggest problems swallowing is the cultural and social policy—anti-immigrant, nativist, anti-European, anti-gay rights. Given that Finland is predominantly social-liberal, I can't see them getting hegemonic power with that any time soon.

    @hedgewitch: Isn't it, though? It's much the same problems as everywhere else. I don't think the problem is so much the actual problems—they're far more manageable here than in most places—rather than the direction of change. The PerSu supporters don't feel welcome in their own country anymore, and with some reason. It's too bad they're taking it out on those weaker than themselves, and I can't get on board that. But that doesn't mean their discontent isn't real.

  6. I left Finland last millennium, and visited again about a decade later, in 2009. It seemed to me that in the intervening years the country had become a lot less egalitarian with higher apparent differences between have haves and have nots (or have not so muchs). I don't know if this reflects reality, or just the way people show their wealth and status, or shifts of income between sectors and groups of people, but it was worrisome as it seemed to embody the worst aspects of what I've seen in the U.S. in regards to well-being in society.
    The other major problem in that respect was the charging of fees for many relatively basic aspects of life, which goes to further put those services, be it public transportation, healthcare or government functions, out of the reach of the poor.

  7. It reflects real changes. Still a far cry from the US, but the trend is worrisome, and there's no broad political will to reverse it yet, although it does come up.