Finnish democracy is controlled from the above

Submitted on Mon, 01/29/2018 - 09:37
According to sociologist Eeva Luhtakallio, the same decision-making ethos applies to both social welfare and health care reform and the active model for addressing unemployment


Eeva Luhtakallio/ Kuva: Jonne Renvall
“The idea of all Finns being in the same boat has not been less true in a long time,” says Sociologist Eeva Luhtakallio.

Text: Heikki Laurinolli
Photograph: Jonne Renvall

Finnish civil society is a top-down project where the right to participate actually seems like a duty. According to sociologist Eeva Luhtakallio, a similar decision-making ethos underlies both the current social welfare and health care reform and the active model for addressing unemployment.

Luhtakallio and Maria Mustranta wrote a book about democracy in the Finnish suburb and said that if the unemployed do not meet the activation criteria set for them from the above, they risk losing their right to livelihood. The book was published in 2017.

This estimate sounds like anticipating the Government’s recent decision on the so-called active model to tackle unemployment. However, the authors actually described the operating principles of the Finnish political system, which have long roots.

“The present Government has not always been consistent in its decisions, but in the ethos of decision-making from the above it is. In making that decision the Government joins a tradition of governing that is much wider in reach than singular policy reforms,” Luhtakallio says.

Luhtakallio’s and Mustranta’s book deals with a political participation workshop conducted in one of the suburbs in the Helsinki metropolitan region.

Luhtakallio is docent of sociology and an associate professor in the New Social Research programme at the University of Tampere in Finland. Mustranta is a freelance journalist from Helsinki.

A subtle class society

According to Luhtakallio, class-based policies are currently prevalent in Finland, which does not mean class society only in the traditional sense, but an ethos that is creating a new type of class-related thinking.

“The current class society has more overlapping aspects, which not only derive from financial circumstances or ownership as in the past,” Luhtakallio explains. The current class divisions are much subtler and more discreet even though ownership is still divided and the new social group of the super-rich has emerged.

In Luhtakallio’s opinion, the way we are now talking about different “bubbles” in society is a politically neutral, acceptable and conveniently vague way of dealing with the existing social classes and structures of inequality.

Finland was created by an elite project

According to Luhtakallio, the Finnish civil society differs from that in many other European countries. In the nineteenth century, citizens were thought to need education and other civilising measures.

Many aspects of the Finnish democracy come from a long way in the past, even though no direct causal relationship can be established. The Finnish civil society differentiated from the Swedish, even though the two have similar roots.

According to Luhtakallio, J.V. Snellman and other influential political leaders of the nineteenth century translated many key concepts of the civil society in a deliberately inactive form. The Finnish word “kansalainen” refers to the people unlike the French “citoyen” and “citoyenne” and the English “citizen” that are based on the Latin word “civitas” which means “city”.

In the nineteenth century, the vast majority of Finns were uneducated and lived in the country. In the opinion of the philosophers who were forming the state, such people could not be allowed to have an active role in the same way as people elsewhere in Europe.

The Finnish welfare state is also an elite project, which never reached the same level as in Sweden where people used to talk about the home for the people. According to Luhtakallio, the welfare state was not built in Finland in order to increase the citizens’ agency.

The social contract has started to dissolve

The social contract between citizens and the state, which is related to the welfare state, has started to dissolve. According to Luhtakallio, one sign of the dissolution is the significant increase of extreme right-wing movements.

The expansion of the extreme right is a global trend that is travelling from one country to another and becoming embedded in different cultures. However, a particular Finnish feature is that there is no strong tradition of neo-Nazism.

“The idea of all Finns being in the same boat has not been less true in a long time. Perhaps it has never been entirely true. That idea has always been a constructed narrative, but in the current situation where the welfare state is being dissolved, it is as if bits of the civil society are cast further apart and in opposite directions from one another,” Luhtakallio explains.

Study on suburbs started after an unexpected election result

After the landslide victory of the populist Finns Party that won 39 seats out of 200 in the general election of 2011, Luhtakallio realised that she did not understand the real reasons for such a result.

“I realised that this was a party that had no basis in civil society whatsoever, and because of that, it was completely different from the other Finnish parties,” Luhtakallio says.

Luhtakallio wanted to investigate why support for the Finns Party was the strongest in suburbs where voter turnout was the lowest. She wanted to start a study on the Finns Party, but the project did not take wind because she was not welcome in the party’s events.

Luhtakallio changed her perspective and started to investigate everyday life in the suburbs. The results of this work were published in the book she co-authored with Maria Mustranta. The descriptions of the participation workshops have attracted much attention.

The same model does not work everywhere

“I have had to tell everyone that there is no magic potion. A common problem with participatory projects is that some model is taken as it is with the expectation that it will work the same in all circumstances,” Luhtakallio says.

A single model does not exist, but a few practical tips emerged.

“One idea was that all people should be shown the same respect as people who are invited to book launches or meetings in the city hall.

In residents’ events, no refreshments are usually served even though that is the rule in events where the big shots are invited.

“I don’t mean anything sumptuous, but this aspect is unappreciated. Such things are considered minor details and people may ask what they have to do with politics. I think such things have much do with politics because they are tokens of appreciation,” Luhtakallio points out.

Serving refreshments does not just mean creating an illusion but a real feeling that someone has thought about the people who are participating and is interested in the quality of their experience.

“The issue goes way deeper than serving coffee and biscuits. It is about not giving the impression that participation is something the authorities allow people to do out of charity. This should be more clearly understood,” Luhtakallio says.

Single parents find it difficult to participate

The workshops also taught that practical matters such as babysitting must also be taken into account.

“Single parents can rarely participate if there are no babysitting arrangements. Very few parents of young children have the time or energy to become interested in participation or to have the resources to make the required practical arrangements,” Luhtakallio says.

According to Luhtakallio, the question is not just of excluding a certain part of the population. It is a question of blindness and numbness to the fact that political participation and citizenship are not separate but a part of everyday life and the human experience.

Do all people really want to participate?

“Of course not, but more people would participate if things were organised differently. Why would all people even be interested in participation? Many have had negative feedback or been disappointed several times in their lives with the result that they do not feel like belonging to society or wanting to have anything to do with it,” Luhtakallio answers.

Places for participation can be found

The suburb project found places where obstacles to participation had been removed. One such place was a family cafeteria run by an association, which served food and offered babysitting services throughout opening times.

The book also describes tenant participation, which is bringing together many people who do not participate in society in any way measurable by formal means. The tenants still run cafeterias, do voluntary work, help the elderly and act as hubs for local networks.

“However, tenant participation has not been included in participation planning, which means that their resources are currently wasted,” Luhtakallio says.

Luhtakallio does not find participation projects useless even if they cannot fix the underlying problems.

“Someone may always get inspired. If a few people started to see things differently or find their inner actor, it would have far-reaching consequences,” Luhtakallio points out.

Eeva Luhtakallio and Maria Mustranta:  Demokratia suomalaisessa lähiössä [Democracy in the Finnish suburb, published in Finnish] Into Kustannus Oy 2017.