Anglophilia and the Lure of Neo-liberalism in Finland

 Anglophilia and the Lure of Neo-liberalism in Finland

Donna M. Roberts

January 2014

(This article was published in Finnish in the Helsinki-based magazine, Voima, January 2014)

There has been much discussion recently about international educational standards and league tables, particularly following Finland’s recent alarm over lower than expected PISA results. However, as Pasi Sahlberg of the Ministry of Education noted in an article published in The Guardian on 8th December, market-based educational reform is proving damaging across the globe. How to read such results seems not entirely straightforward, and Finland’s excellence in education is, nonetheless, still upheld by the results of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In October 2013, the OECD delivered a report on international educational standards, outlining an international league table of literacy and numeracy in young people aged 16-24, and in the adult population in general. The results were probably no news to Finns, but were a shocking revelation to the English. Despite being perennially aware of how muddled their education system is, the British (England and Wales share educational policy) were not quite prepared to see this articulated in the cold light of data which further increases the dismal sense that Britain is now a developing country.

In youth literacy, Finland topped the league; in adult literacy it came second after Japan; in youth numeracy Finland was beaten only by the Netherlands; and in adult numeracy, it gained second place between Japan and Sweden. England, in contrast, was respectively placed at 19 and 14 out of 22, and 21 and 16 out of 24. The report led to further hand-wringing in the British media about the state of national education and the country’s dumbed down yoof. It also led to even greater intrigue into what exactly has made the Finnish educational system so successful.

As Pasi Stahlberg points out, the push towards market-based educational reform was led by the English in the late 1980s with the appropriately named GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement). The results of this are clear enough to anyone familiar with the chaos of the British school system, and not least the broader implications of its impact on social development. It is very hard to explain to the British, even well-meaning school teachers, that the relative successes of the Finnish education system are not achieved in isolation from wider coherent social concerns and economic implementation. The UK government still hang on to the delusion that increasing testing of children is the solution, rather than acknowledging that its educational outcomes are the cause of broader socio-economic calamities. Could it now be, though, that Finland has been infected by this trend to extend the market-led principles of neo-liberalism to education?

There is much discussion on this matter in Finland currently. However, as a British person living in Finland, an alarm bell starts to sound that this might be another example of the detrimental spread of policies pioneered by the UK and USA. The education system is one of the most pronounced achievements of modern Finland, and to anyone from the UK or USA appears positively utopian in possibility. But, as elsewhere, it too is tied laterally to socio-economic policy and the political ‘vision’ of government and ideological investment. Is it now understood that, even in Finland, educational structures are being pulled along by the neo-liberal bandwagon?

The enviably successful education system that contributes to Finland’s equally enviable knowledge-based industries has been sustained by a relatively calm and egalitarian social landscape. If that were to change, what would the consequences be for educational standards, and how would the public and the government respond to demands for greater segregation in Finnish schools, based on issues of immigration and income division? Could this ever be a problem in Finland? Could Finland ever follow the fated path of the UK in terms of social division and stagnant social mobility? Could it ever become a country where the wealthier go to one school, and the poor and immigrants definitively go to another; where the graduates of the former assume their seats of entitlement in public office and private management, while the poor, the misfortunate, and those with family roots in other countries are mercilessly relegated to the side-lines of political and economic franchisement?

One of the very endearing characteristics of Finland is that, despite its proven genius in innovation and self-construction, it never seems quite confident with its achievements and tends to look to ‘bigger’ countries for influences: a tendency that is perhaps best understood by psychologists than politicians or economists. Let’s call it a kind of largophilia. There are, for example, some prominent voices in Finland who seem to find the UK an endless source of laissez-faire optimism and an economic model to be admired. This is something that many UK citizens living in Finland find deeply worrying. Not because we are fixated on what is bad about Britain, but because we are concerned that Finns are being misled by neo-liberal fantasies.

A conspicuous example. In a column of June 2013, the Director of the Finnish Business and Policy Forum (EVA), Matti Apunen, praised with almost Enid Blytonesque enthusiasm the youthful good sense and liberal optimism of the British youth. This wholesome faction, he breezily concluded, was represented by no other than one Boris Johnson. With what could be described as charmingly good spirit, Mr Apunen compared Johnson with Ruben Stiller as a politician for a new era. A new era? On reading this one could be confused as to which century we might be in, given that the ‘new era’ politician of which Mr Apunen speaks is no other than Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, MP, Mayor of London, alumnus of Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford, former Bullingdon Club comrade of Prime Minister, David Cameron, etc. etc. Anyone who knows anything about British society knows all too well that what Boris Johnson represents is about as new as swan pudding.

In his delivery at the annual Margaret Thatcher Lecture on November 28th this year, Johnson showed his true Thatcherite colours with a speech that called for the celebration of “the spirit of envy” as a motor for economic gain, praising and encouraging inequality as a “violent economic centrifuge […] operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth.” To encourage greed in a country which has zero social mobility is reckless, if not immoral. It exposes a profound lack of social awareness and political vision on the part of a true Conservative archetype, so blinded by privilege as to believe that he has anything to say on meritocratic values.

Evidently, despite Mr Apunen’s impressions, Boris Johnson sounds far less like a politician for a new era than the dismal echo of the psychotic capitalism of the 1980s, which, despite the crashing consequences of a rampant economics of greed, seems to be coming back in style.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Mr Apunen’s zesty column on British optimism was published a few days after his attending the Bilderberg Group meeting at the former country home of the Earls of Clarendon in the rural outskirts of London. Certainly, anyone resident at such an event might well come away with a very jolly view of England. However, should not a leading Finnish economist have a more wily sense of the reality of Britain’s social elite than one gleaned from Bilderberg festivities, and the frankly silly notion that Johnson represents a new faction in British political life? Maybe Mr Apunen could not hide his excitement at finding himself the Bilderberg’s go-to Finn and lost his perspective for a moment. Regardless, his comments on the British reflect a stunning political naiviety that hardly befits his profile as the wise and yet progressive voice of Finnish liberalism.

After reading such doddery columns, the Finns should really be more confident in their opposition to so-called experts preaching Anglophile economics after hobnobbing in the world of the very unprogressive English elite. (Apunen’s current profile of “business delegation leader” might seem a little misleading. He has not worked as an economist, but merely holds a degree in economics and before self-anointing himself an economics expert, worked in  the cultural end of journalism.)  It is deeply spurious that a Finn with an international profile can pass off such questionable commentary, even in an ‘opinion’ piece. The critical mass of such ‘opinion’-led press goes a lot further in influencing the public than more carefully studied articulations of expertise.

The current wave of confidently neo-liberal spokespeople in Finland might indeed represent a new edge to the country’s political culture that cannot be dismissed. But, it is clear that in politics confidence goes a long way, and in a country so curiously lacking in confidence, despite its achievements, it can be observed that Finns are overly submissive in their reception of the bold statements of the latest generation of economic liberals. This might be more evident to a foreigner. While this author represents the many Brits who would eagerly take lessons on educational policy from the Finns, she also represents a generation of British people who have become so jaded with the neo-liberal sales talk that has dominated British politics of the last twenty years, that she cannot remain passive while an influential Finnish economist cites the UK as a model to be followed, not least write naively of an old guard English Tory as a figure-head for a new era.

A British person reflecting on the rise in Finland of a young and yet fairly patrician political elite that nurtures and guides through its ranks the likes of Susanna Koski, wonders in what direction Finns think their country is heading, and wherein really lies the allure of the new liberal right? Given the historical egalitarianism of the nation, a number of questions arise. Are the historically socially democratic and conscience-led Finns now going through an era of disavowal of the benefits of a coherent social system? Are Finns unwittingly being bullied by a rapacious and opportunistically self-serving minority into a new era, of which social and financial inequality is not only a consequence but, moreover, an ideologically desired outcome?

The recent populist political trends in Finland suggest that this is a country that, if not careful, could very well go down a route that would bring unprecedented levels of inequality to modern Finnish society. Looking from a British perspective, that prospect is so incredibly lamentable, not least because it is likely to be sold to Finns in the guise of personal freedom, wealth opportunities, less state intervention, and a positive national drive to efficiency. These glory holes of neo-liberalism are the same as those sold to the British for over 30 years. I am recurrently stunned that Finnish neo-liberals, such as Susanna Koski and Matti Apunen, express admiration for the UK; wondering where on earth they have been receiving their information, where they have been visiting, to whom they have been talking, and what they have been reading. The UK is now in a state so awful, so riven with divisions, desperation, bitterness, anger, loss, deceit, political, economic and ethical paralysis, that any country that is being cajoled, seduced or bullied by its political and economic elite into following the yellow brick road of public-private initiatives, or having its ear whispered with honeyed images of a world with minimum state intervention, needs to look very hard at the UK and develop a critical response to the political sales talk.

November 5th was Guy Fawkes night in the UK, a date when the British traditionally burn an effigy of a bearded Catholic who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Interestingly, around this date the film V for Vendetta has come to be screened on TV around the world. It is fascinating how this historical effigy has become the face of opposition to a Gordian knot of neo-liberal and anti-democratic policy. It is an imaginative response to what has become the bloated rhetoric of a neo-liberalism that can no longer claim any credibility to concerns for the average citizen any more than it can those made vulnerable by the realities of its incoherent, reckless strategies. With the ever-increasing viral significance of its masked ultra-democratic hero, this film takes on an ever more disturbing and uncanny resemblance to the modern UK. The Orwellian tale of public exploitation for private gains struck viewers again this year as sadly less cautionary for the current unyielding UK elite and more as a picture of what they still may deliver before retiring behind their armoured gates. I refer to this fable not because its presents a very British paranoia, but because it represents an image of the UK that people are finding more and more familiar. Why, then, is the UK fetishized by Finnish economists and politicians?

The film clearly strikes a Brit very close to the bone, with its uncannily familiar landscape of cheap independent TV, grubby streets, and Big Brother semiotics. Impossible to think that fascism could rise in the country of Churchill? Even more absurd to think that a tiny fraction of the levels of inequality and exploitation featured in this dystopian fable could come to a far more decent country, like Finland? The UK is shockingly bankrupt on all sorts of ethical and social questions, and its people are used to that. There are, though, a number of sensations that provoke intense anxiety in the British onlooker to Finnish politics, not only the neo-liberal bullies and right-wing contortionists, but also the slack they are cut by the media and the general public. It begs the question: What would it take for Finns to get really angry?

The UK is ravaged by unconscionable inequality, and while its press is riddled with scandal and bad practice it nonetheless remains an occasionally intimidating and relatively fearless leveller. One cannot but feel in Finland that a combination of a fairly hegemonic media and a deferential national character places a limit on the effectiveness of a coherent critique of neo-liberal rhetoric and those complicit in the incitement to racial conflict. High profile figures of major parties are merely chastised for expressing extremist views on immigrants and for playing fast and loose with fascist-allegiances. An onlooker asks: Is the reason why they get away with it because they are harmless, or because Finns can’t believe they are dangerous? One figure has already been convicted of ethnic agitation, another advocates dismissing the Ombudsman for Minorities and repealing the law against ethnic agitation. To present an argument for limiting further immigration is one thing, but to dissolve laws put in place to prevent hate crime seems deeply pernicious. It brings to mind something that happened in the 1930s.

It is astonishing even to a Brit to see that, despite his fascistic blunderings and several pecuniary penalties for racist writings and agitations against minorities, the inimitable MP and councillor, Jussi Halla-aho remains not only a highly popular member of the True Finns, but also finds himself a rising star with genuine political agency as a member of the supposedly human rights vigilant Council of Europe. Are the Finns really so forgiving? Is this a cunning plan to keep him on the leash of mainstream politics?

Halla-aho, however, seems cut from one particularly evolved cloth while other Finnish political phenomena wear – what needs to be flagged up tenfold by the Finnish opposition – an even more disconcerting guise, and yet one no less susceptible to eugenic solutions. The youth wing of the National Coalition Party continue to field a thoroughbred stable of provocateurs who would, quite frankly, be devoured by the British political media and satirical culture in a very short feeding frenzy that would leave them so beyond any credible resurrection, that they would be forced to seek the Bill Hick’s recommended route to salvation. The heroically-Hebrew-named Saul Schuback casting the pearls of his wisdom and worldly experience before the swine of ‘weaker material’. The national socialist sales manager, Susanna Koski, whose indefatigable resilience in the face of far too decent Finnish journalism is matched only by the insidious damage of her divisive rhetoric. The woman perfectly represents the icy reality of the political soul in the age of Facebook. As one blogger put it: “The chilling lack of compassion in her face scares me more than my own cynicism”.

It is truly astonishing that such figures maintain a Teflon-like political profile after such unabashed howlers as Koski sharing her affinities with the Lapuan liike; caught on camera coquettishly posing in the official black and blue colours of the historical right wing bully-boy movement. Such gaucheness, or brazen lack of concern for embracing the clear semiotics of right wing history, would see a UK equivalent of Ms Koski torn from page to page of even the more sensible right-leaning newspapers of the British media. Whatever these youngsters imagine a media lions’ den might look like, it would be a mere teddy bear’s picnic compared to the bigger and older political boards of the UK, from which their likes would be, rapidly and without apology, hauled stage left.

Faced with the visceral live political arena of British television debates, Ms Koski and her kin would, within minutes be out-argued and out-reasoned not by a media professional, but by an impassioned, life-worn, real human being from a background about which she knows nothing, and yet into something similar she is eager to condemn not a small proportion of her fellow Finns: An immigrant single mum struggling against hate-crime, a young man with M.E. struggling against benefits cuts; people whose daily reality would expose the black hole of her political conscience. They would summarily expose her for the volkisch-haired right-wing clotheshorse that she really is. A presentable political poppet nurtured and protected by a patriarchal political guard which privately congratulates itself on this seemingly feminist ruse: their very own young Maggie in the making.

The Finnish political media nobly tolerate such figures in the earnest belief in democratic debate, while in fact the reluctance to confront directly their conceit and moral shabbiness leads to a very skewed sense of political reality, in which a disproportionate representation of extremists and opportunists develop far higher profiles than their moderate counterparts. It is doubtful that any of these figures would have been able to piece themselves together again after the kinds of merciless political mauling they would have received in the UK. They are only so confident because they have no idea; because they are cosetted by a deferential national character and a sickly party resilience to a media that struggles to criticize the right effectively, and which is only rarely capable of delivering (or publishing) a truly incisive exposé of either their language or their political tactics.

And then there is the media personality who reflects the voice of all these new young liberal types in print and TV, Finland’s most active tweeter, apparently, Tuomas Enbuske. Enbuske’s rise represents the epidemic castration of intelligent critical debate in the media. In a democracy, it is generally observable that the right always manages to appoint louder, more crudely intelligent, more resentful, and more confident bullies than its opposition. Those who are not only politically but also ethically opposed to the casually aggressive neo-liberal ranting in Finland need to get sharper and nastier if they are going to compete with the populist, spleen-fuelled winner’s philosophy spouted by Enbuske, with his near omnipresence in the Finnish media.

There are countless columns written by this man that one could take as exemplary of his bullish misanthropy. Enbuske recently wrote a column in the Helsingin Sanomat in which he argued that Finland needs to encourage fewer young people into Higher Education, when what is important has nothing to do with institutional learning and everything to do with finding practical solutions to making Finland wealthier. Academics were dismissed as “unproductive mumblers” who hamper the lives of the “working man”. In his own assured style, Enbuske praised the successes of Chinese and Swiss economies as due to their people not being overly educated. Have you ever been to Switzerland Mr Enbuske? The Swiss are far from the model of simple practical doers that Enbuske imagines. If one ventures into the rural heartland, one discovers that even people who milk cows turn out to be incredibly keen supporters of the arts. The arts, one can only assume, would figure as non-productive residue, the cultural excretia of an Enbuskean world in which positive ‘productivity’ is defined by young Finnish people’s future in the creation of puerile apps, with Angry Birds as the bench mark of invention, marketing and national success. Angry Birds, good; PhD in archaeology bad.

It really does strike a foreigner that the loudest representatives of Finnish young neo-liberalism want to denounce and demolish everything that so many other countries admire and envy about what Finland has achieved: to throw a healthy baby out with the bath water still warm from their grandmother’s taps.

Tuomas Enbuske has not always held Finnish education in such contempt, however. On his TV show in 2012, he flaunted Finland’s education system in a retort to New Zealand’s Transport Minister, Gerry Brownlee, righteously bigging up that: “Experts come to learn from the Finnish educational system”. Some months later, though, in his HS column, Enbuske amends his defence of the Finnish education system and likens the “lure” of higher education in Finland to a “cancer”.

The least that this reveals is a certain lack of consistency on Enbuske’s part. More disconcertingly, however, it points to what looks very much like the complete meltdown of a once vaguely sympathetic media ‘personality’ into a public case study in bilious self-aggrandisement, and the awkwardly transparent seepage into his ‘professional’ persona of long un-resolved personal issues. This really is a man turned to the dark side in order finally to embrace his own ass burger empathy bypass, a man who is genuinely proud to have turned himself into Finnish media’s very own Eric Cartman. It is striking that Finns currently seem to tolerate or even indulge the kind of shameless nastiness that assumes the guise of straight talking radicalism, such as that found in the Muppet-like grotesques of the Finnish right, or the deferentially accepted provocations of the bellicose, self-laudatory voice of Tuomas Enbuske.

I can offer only partial defence of the British media, with emphasis on the relative fact that there are many hardened, politically savage, and historically vigilant critics, in more varied forms of media than are on offer in Finland who would have taken down the likes of Koski in a matter of days, and who would make an easy and yet no doubt unsatisfactory breakfast out of the posturing Enbuske and his 24/7 side show as the ranting bullied school boy who finally finds himself on the winning side. And yet, the mutual back rubbing of such clearly embittered neo-liberal buffoons and right wing poster girls goes more or less unimpeded by the Finnish media and intellectual left. (Not least the paucity of sharp satirical talent, the political wing of which is conspicuously un-evolved in Finland.) Again, one might put this down to Finnish deference and a curious absence of political hot-headedness. Charming, I’m sure. Nonetheless, it is this deference that enables such resentment-fuelled wannabees to behave so contemptuously of the admirable Finnish principles that aided their own success, and to pursue a lucrative career in dysfunctional comment and twisted politics that serves to damage so many very good things about Finland that other nations admire.

While the British reel with disbelief at the starvation, sickness, illiteracy, wealth chasms and impoverishment dealt by the outcome of their blindness to the dreams of conservatism, Thatcherism, and neo-liberal vertigo, Finland politely listens to the cosetted gibberings of its young liberals who, like Koski, admire Margaret Thatcher’s UK as a model of aspiration for those wanting to be on the winning side. Perhaps it is a typically human symptom that a successful social democracy like Finland has created a monster that seeks to devour itself. There is a general and very nice anglophilia in Finland that is circumscribed by idealization and partial-sightedness. More disturbingly, though, there is behind the young neo-liberals a sense of admiration for the very things that have come to define modern Britain: social inequality, elitism, unregulated marketeering, tax breaks for the rich, property booms, corporate privileging, back-handed expenses, and the contemptuous disregard for the vulnerable and unemployed.

Having grown up in the UK, I can only imagine that most of these young liberals in Finland have really no idea of what the reality of their notions might lead to. They must merely assume that they can still envision a way to maintain their world-class education, their immaculate streets and public transport services, their great health and dental care, their relatively crime-free streets, discreet police force, their polite children, and their grand-parents with heated homes, while they can also look forward to generating a less-taxed income to afford, say, a wardrobe like Ms Koski’s, a new Audi, a few buy-to-let flats in Töölö, an extension to the family cottage. There is a blindly divisive politics behind those wanting to lure the young to the right by idealizing the benefits of private wealth while overlooking the long-term consequences of an ideology that has been shown to devastate public services and serve to increase wage gaps and polarize communities at great and manifold expense.

Certainly, people in the UK have become very rich through the incremental fixation on this economic model, albeit remarkably few people; people who may not even live in the country, and certainly people who have arranged for their companies and themselves to pay little or no taxation in the UK. The short-term gains that accompany the model of privatization, foreign investment and outsourcing of governmental responsibilities do not work to improve the long-term prospects of the majority. This has been proven in the UK, where there has been a long-term growing disparity between economic growth and stagnating wages.

Social division is not something one associates with Finland. There is ten times more social division in a square mile of an east London district than there is in the entire country of Finland. However, the Finnish opposition to the new liberalism needs to arm itself with the economic facts and proven outcomes of the developments of the economic model that the political right wish to follow. The Finnish people need to be aware of how this model works, and what follows in its wake; they need to realize that the financial growth of a family under this model is not simply down to hard work; it is not simply down to those who graft and those who do not – which is the wonderfully simplistic mantra of the current right, who more and more sound like some North American patriarch from bygone times.

There are in the UK countless families headed by working parents struggling to heat their homes and buy food; university educated young couples now having to resort to food banks to feed their family. This is not a bleeding-heart-liberal fable. These are not ‘benefits scroungers’, but people in full time and part time employment. Such are the many cases of the marginalization of working people that have resulted from the Thatcher- Blair-Cameron pursuit of limited government and the so-called ‘Big Society’ – the ruse for massive privatization through the backdoor and dependency on poorly-paid if not free labour – with wages unhinged from national economic growth, and profits pouring in to tax-dodging corporations. The privatisation and outsourcing at the heart of their vision has produced a whole new thickening social-strata of middle-management, the cultural banality of which dominates the country like a pub car park full of company cars. The disingenuous market mantra of ‘choice’ haunts every household caught between the Syclla and Charybdis of ‘choosing’ which over-priced foreign energy fat cat they are forced into making fatter through their crippling fuel bills, to which crappy school they are going to send their children.

While sold on the premise of cost cutting, efficiency drives, better value for the taxpayer, etc., this model has had arguably very poor success given the extent of the investment in it. In the long term, it diminishes investments that matter on a social and cultural level, and the cost of it has been the creation of a society in which individuals are left to sink or swim; their livelihood dependent on uncertain contracts, stagnating wages yet longer hours, and the short-term profit-led ambitions of the domestic or foreign companies for which they end up working. With characteristic perspicacity, the Guardian cartoonist, Steve Bell, defined this new economic vision by adapting the old Marxist adage “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” into: “From each according to their vulnerability, to each according to their greed.”

It is possible that the majority of Finns are unaware of the potential risks of relieving state funding into the hands of share-holding interest; moves which follow the state-decreasing principles of which the Finnish neo-liberals approve. If anyone is in doubt as to the consequences of the kinds of policies that are being touted by the new Finnish liberals then they need to look to the UK, where private interests have decimated not only public infrastructure but also the political will of the country, leaving it wide open to the exploitation of an opportunist, short-termist economic elite. The British picture is not rosy, and again presents an Orwellian spectre. The neo-liberal dream of public-private initiatives implemented in the UK means that now a handful of international corporate leviathans control public services; military, transport, governmental IT, prisons, immigration detention centres, the management of unemployment and disability benefits, to name but a few.

It is not hard to imagine the consequences of contracting private corporations to develop a business model for assessing the legitimacy of unemployment and disability benefits in the UK, with a view to profiting from every benefit freeze. The French-owned company Atos is invested in forcing into work people with serious health impairments and disabilities. Its impersonal computer-testing format is judged by many families to be responsible for an average of 32 deaths per week since it began its 11,000 weekly tests in 2005. (I wonder if that is something like the solution for the ‘weaker material’ that young Saul Schuback had in mind?)

The free market argument is that private outsourcing is the route to greater efficiency and greater value per taxpayer’s pound. However, not only have two of these massive corporations avoided paying corporation tax in the UK, but they are also currently being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office.  Their credibility continues to decline after a recent report by the National Audit Office (a national spending watchdog) announced a crisis in confidence that taxpayers’ money is not actually being best spent via this gargantuan private model, and expressed serious concerns at the extent of the monopoly established by the four biggest national contractors; suggesting that these corporations had become so big that the government was in danger of losing sight of their competitive dispensability.

It seems, then, that the route to a lighter state is neither paved with good intentions nor good practice. One can only hope that Finland has its own version of the NAO and Corporate Watch. One can only hope that hard-working Finnish non-celebrity journalists and underpaid academic researchers have a clear sight on exposing the potentials for such grotesque practice in this country, and that those politicians who have not been spellbound by shiny-shoed neo-liberal hocus pocus are prepared to challenge any hint of such developments.

Because of the admirable Lutheran and humanist model of the modern Finnish nation (compared for example to the long-in-the-tooth dregs of private school imperialism that still bugger the UK), one is reluctant to believe that Finland’s politicians would unleash this kind of corporate hell on its people. Finland, surely, will do this better? Of course, government outsourcing exists in Finland, and has done since the 1990s: local government IT, healthcare, aviation, defence, to name but a few areas. Privatization and outsourcing are here to stay. In the UK, though, their dual impact has been formative in imposing massive wage-cost disparities (i.e. unaffordable public transport, dental care, energy bills, food bills, housing), the cultural normalization of job insecurity and the damage to health, childcare and quality of life that accompanies it. Not least, it is now clear that it plays a central role in the exploitation of the infirm and the unemployed for corporate gains.

If Finns are confident that their government, and their more extreme youth wing, are morally steadfast and responsible enough to prevent similar outcomes, then perhaps there is no need to worry. If, however, the Finnish people simply cannot believe that such things could happen here, then they must be urged to greater vigilance. Critical debates over the last few years have made it clear that neo-liberalism is not merely an economic policy, but, rather, a social ideology. Neo-liberals always tend to talk from a moral high ground – hence their success in the USA – confusing economic success with moral stature.

It is an odd sort of morality that not only stands by and watches, but actively and consciously constructs a society defined by inequality and the whipping up of divisive social spleen. Alongside the pioneering wagons of neo-liberal economics run the barking dogs of inequality. The youthful wing of Finnish neo-liberalism provides us with a clear image of those barking dogs, who, given the opportunity, would see Finland further divided by the have’s and have-not’s. Furthermore, they provide us with another example of those who believe that the world is simply divided into workers and scroungers, despite the economic model they advocate being built on the inherent discrepancy of work and wages, the inherent flexibility of corporations to employ and un-employ with diminishing safeguards for employees, and the inherent privilege of shareholding interests in decisions that are not only out of the control of the employees, but, in many cases, out of control of governments.

We are faced again, as at the end of the nineteenth-century, with an opposing argument concerning the nature of the poor, infirm and unlucky as contrasted to the nature of those who strive and win. In those days, free-market liberals used Darwinist models as a justification for imperialism and the inherent fact of social and physical inequality. Some on the left used Darwin’s observations of social life in the natural world to argue that human beings are essentially altruistic, and that the drive to mutual aid is far stronger than any drive to competition or survival. This is an old argument, and yet it rears its head again, pulled by an opportunist and elitist logic harnessed to neo-Darwinist neo-liberalism. If we listen carefully, we can hear it behind and between the lines of the current wave of economic rhetoric in Finland and elsewhere. I again return to the much discussed comment of Saul Schuback about ‘weaker material’; clear evidence that dodgy eugenicist arguments are alive again in extremist neo-liberal breeding grounds like the youth wing of the National Coalition Party. While this faction makes its precocious claims to economic perspicacity, it is clear that many of its members have been nurtured by the elitism and contempt that is riveted into the baleful heart of neo-liberalism.

The new Finnish liberals are not the only group to make the convenient distinction between the innate character of workers and shirkers. Just as the National Coalition Party in Finland, Kokoomus, campaigned in the communal elections of 2012 by co-opting the historical term for the party of labour, the conference of the British Conservative Party in 2013 was dominated by one slogan: ‘The Party for Hardworking People’. Criticised even by party members for sounding ‘exclusionist’, this nasty slogan really stuck in the craw of people who have been made unemployed and even further impoverished by the government’s austerity measures. Moreover, it strikes everyone with an ounce of compassion and forward thinking who, after the economic downturn, can see a far bigger and messier picture in which the Saturnine ideological machine polished by this party eats at least half of its own children.

Those who continue to govern Finland may well be able to side step the pit-falls exemplified by the UK. However, it is only wise to be concerned at the extent that careless right wing and neo-liberal rhetoric is taking such a foothold in Finnish public life, and is becoming so commonplace that it is being ‘naturalised’ by default and deference. The fact that most of the people who spout it can barely be taken seriously is no less a grave concern. There are many clear voices in the Finnish media who are working hard to counter this current blight of insidious social ideology. The political opposition needs to work a lot harder though in developing a well-researched caution to the Finnish electorate against falling for the well-suited seductions of neo-liberals old and young alike. The minute that Finnish people relinquish a cautionary control of their state apparatus is the minute that the parasites and private interest groups will leap from behind the curtain and carve it up for themselves and their cronies.

The UK has been broken by the kinds of bitterly divisive politics that seems to be driving aggressive neo-liberal hectoring in Finland; by a mania for the ideal of the free market when in reality there is nothing free about it. Cronyism, the old boy network, and the specific awarding of contracts to pre-invested parties have determined a shocking amount of the public-private initiatives that have completely re-constructed the social and economic landscape of the UK. This has been achieved to the detriment of the majority of British lives and those to come. There may be some wise heads in Finnish politics, but given the warning signs of the generation of neo-liberals to come, the Finns are by no means assured that ‘the market’ will not carve up their country in a similar way. It is amazing how quickly it actually is to carve up and sell off a country (it happened in my life time), and it is a terrible and endless horizon that presents itself on realizing what has been lost and how few people have actually gained anything worthwhile.

It is only due to the successes of the social democratic system that most of the young conservatives in Finland have such a voice at all, spoken through their fine teeth. Eschewing the apparently anachronistic loosers’ language of social democracy, they assume the economic rhetoric of entrepreneurial, public-private reform that dominates UK and US domestic economies. As writer and theatre director, Esa Leskinen staged with uncompromising clarity in his recent play, The Fourth Way, Finland’s economic troubles have so often come about through political and economic neophilia, through a hunger to join the top tables of neo-liberalism.

There is a disturbingly juvenile craving in this new generation of political youth for the power to bash the state and initiate ideological reform that would place them and their ilk firmly on the winning side of the neo-liberal fantasy. Their websites froth with the language of economic ‘solutions’ and entrepreneurial ‘necessities’, with the promise of more ‘efficient’ services, etc. etc. They assume absolute difference from the immigrants in Finland, or the London rioters, or the Occupy protesters. Notably because they manifest a transparently immature abjection at any notion of a world that does not revolve around a fashionably presentable self-image, underpinned by maniacal efforts of networking to secure their own place on the winning side. It is also because they have been so protected by the very state that they seek to dismantle, and, essentially, because they have no idea how lucky they are.

It is not that hard to sway voters with the promise of a few financial carrots offering freedom from the state. In the UK, Thatcher and co. did that by selling off council houses, and now her political children are carving up state education for the private profiteering of their mates. What the Finns need to be vigilant about now is not necessarily what is offered by these politicians to come, but what is at stake.

13 thoughts on “Anglophilia and the Lure of Neo-liberalism in Finland

    • Thanks. Yes, I saw it, and I’ve just sent off an article to Voima in response to Michael Booth’s writings. I’ll also put it up here in English shortly.

  1. As a Finn living in the Uk this was a really fresh and insightful read, thanks! Also it’s great to to hear that you wrote a response to the Guardian article… I can’t wait to read it too.

    • Thanks Janne. It’s often easier to write against the establishment as an outsider, but it does seem that the debate needs to get edgier if Finland is to resist some of the things that the right have in store. I inquired with the Guardian if they might like to publish my response to Booth. I’ve had no reply yet…

  2. I concur. Fantastic piece. As an English person living in Finland I have seen the UK private school system close up, studied British politics and the civil service, and I have witnessed some of the Finnish media, politics and education. I find it interesting that there is a myth about Finnish education and healthcare being free. It does cost and there is already a two tier system. Thankfully state education and healthcare are affordable for many and waiting times are (still) short. Unfortunately there are grave signs that that the market is taking over education: Rovio’s entry into schools is a big red flag for me and I am hugely disappointed that is going almost unquestioned.

    • Thanks Booris. Yes, the Rovio success is astonishing. I can’t believe it myself. I really don’t get the whole Angry Birds attraction, and, frankly, feel that Finns should be rather more embarrassed that this puerile app is being lauded as a national golden egg. I used to like playing Killer-Gorilla on my BBC computer as a kid, but I would never sanction its developers in the arena of education. It’s absurd. It’s as if some very opportunistic people in the computing industry and, sadly, within educational theory have united to flog a commercial educational ‘concept’ that works off the agency of both the respect tendered to Finnish educationalists and the ridiculous agency of the Angry Birds brand power. What utter bollocks, and disappointingly cynical as a marketing trick for schools. Under the banner of ‘Innovation’, it seems that virtually anything can get the thumbs up from the captains of industry and the government’s latest pandering to the peddlers of commercial ‘solutions’. It’s like something Douglas Adams might have penned as a dystopian gag.

  3. I’m torn. This piece makes several great, no, excellent, observations and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but it’s points are all forcefully tied together with fundamentally flawed logic into a horrible excuse for a coherent idea.

    Any claims of wide public support for Apunen and Enbuske, or their ubiquity and prevalence in public debate are utterly disingenuous. If anything, it’s the left intellectual pundit who has always been in vogue with cultured, well-educated folk here; in obvious need of a challenger, sparring partner of sorts, peer in both wit and de minimis political sophistication. While Apunen and Enbuske are provocative and zealous, that is more a feature of the nature of public debate, and their participation and contribution to it is more than welcome.

    And yes, the UK the author describes and seemingly despises sounds indeed very similar to my perception of the British society as a Finn – my stay here has attuned me to benefits of a more socially, economically and intellectually homogenous society.

    However numerous they are, they are also difficult to positively describe, quantify and accurately shape with policy; not to mention they come with their very own trade-offs, by definition, in diversity, intellectual dissent and personal freedom.

    Does the author not stop to think what could possibly lead to biteless and spineless political journalism she calls out, if not the lack of competition and appropriately challenging education & career paths for those sufficiently endowed with the prerequisite intellectual, social (and well..) economic capital?

    Adopting British policy in a bout of ‘anglophilia’ would certainly lead to catastrophic results, as would almost any kind of carbon copy policy design. There are however examples in the UK worthy of following – take the NHS, where public sector efficiency and cost-awareness, taken to an extreme which at first to me felt almost brutal and inhuman, seems to lead to overall better health care outcomes, unintuitive as it may be.

    • I don’t think it’s disingenuous to draw attention to the influence of bullishly opinionated media figures, especially when their arguments are flaky, self-serving and offensive. I have no problem with them representing a ‘challenge’ to the left, but believe that they represent a very low standard of thought and debate, and not least the superficial wing of the insidious ideology that has developed through the very disingenuous claims of neo-liberal economics. My polemical approach is deliberately provocative. This is not an essay on Aristotle. It is aimed at calling out a certain flabbiness in Finnish debate and expressing a perspective on Finnish media that is apparent to a foreign resident. Something that hundreds of readers have found very insightful.

      In no way does this essay deny that ‘appropriately challenging education & career paths’ are necessary for a capable society. You seem to be inferring this. I am fully aware of educational imperatives to support parity and distinction. This is not the same as justifying a private school system that exploits weakness and wealth.

      I might engage on a rhetorical point of logic if I felt it worthwhile, but since your comments are articulated with a certain confused, and almost resentful, attempt at logic, I won’t.

      I will say, though, that I do not despise the UK, but I do despise the people who exploit the British people. Furthermore, that I wrote this article with ethical conviction, and reject outright the notion that it is a ‘horrible excuse’ for anything.

  4. Thank you Donna for this – I’ve been wondering about the Finnish politicians’ enthusiasm over British educational system for a decade now – and as you’ve correctly understood, the reasons are not pedagogical. The run-down of Finnish educational system being well under way it is sometimes very hard to keep my mouth shut when foreign colleagues tell me how great the Finnish system is – Sahlberg and others like him try to maintain the image abroad because they want to make a profitable business out of it. At the same time the ministry and board of education change the national curriculum every ten years and each time they try to copy every bad decision made elsewhere (Britain, for example) because they lack a true vision.

  5. Thank you for a thought provoking piece. I am, like many other commenters I see, a Finn who has a few years of experience about living in the UK. This was a while back, so reading the UK news nowadays is often odd; the place seems so different. However I do remember first moving there and finding out that the cultural shock was much, much bigger than my twenty-something little mind was ever able to anticipate.

    First and foremost it’s the class thing. No amount of reading you could do on the subject while enjoying your egalitarian schooling in 80s Lapland will prepare you for the reality of it. Now, as somewhat of an adult, after years in the UK and a couple of other countries in Central Europe, I’m able to completely ignore homeless beggars in Helsinki. When and where did I learn that, I wonder – why is it it’s considered childish if you react in some other way, like trying to help?

    But I digress.One should keep in mind the history of the current educational system in Finland – the whole thing was planned in the 60s and the reforms carried out in the 70s – much to the chagrin of the National Coalition, who basically opposed to the last minute and even afterwards always retained their suspicion toward the system, concerned that the children would be brainwashed into communists.

    So it is not a terrible surprise the conservatives would basically want to dismantle the current system. Only their reasons have changed. Basically, traditional conservatism is in a horrible crisis all over Europe; as the traditional right wing parties no longer represent any ethical or moral values (such as moderate patriotism, obediance, hard work – the most common satirical characterisation of the National Coalition is a priest with a military helmet) they are at least to my understanding quite lost. I mean, everyone does not have to like the values I just listed, but like them or not, they are nevertheless moral and ethical values that provide a certain outlook on desirable human behaviour and indeed, a desirable life one should aim for.

    In their absence it’s difficult not to go morally bankrupt. It’s like the experience you get when reading something like Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: it must be mentally exhausting to be a misanthropic dork all the time and only think of your own gain. No wonder these people seem a little tense. Because what you’re left with are the neoliberalist market ideals as values, and those, as you point out, do not really work as such that well.

    Also of course this creates the space for a conservative party such as the True Finns – I mean they’re smart enough to realise they’re not going to be on the winning side in this darwinist liberal game (or as Schubak so elegantly put it), but they’d nevertheless really want to be conservatives with traditional values and turn back the clocks a little bit if at all possible. Sometimes it seems their craving for the traditionally proper and decent is so great it doesn’t really matter at all if all the other stuff mentioned in the party agenda makes absolutely no sense.

    Regarding education, this has also created a problem in the long run; the National Coalition is also traditionally seen as a sivistyspuolue, for which I can think of no proper translation but it nevertheless basically means they are influential in educational policy. This is especially so in higher education and the universities – which are in a way considered the National Coalition domain much more than the leftist primary education. One of the traditional points of discussion here has been how does one get into a university; many on the left wanted and want a sort of Swedish system while the conservatives have always very jealously guarded the upper secondary shools or what ever you’d call them as the primary route to universities.

    But when not having values to speak of, it’s a little bit difficult to develop educational policy taking into account any other considerations than the market ones. Which, let’s face it, leaves all the important considerations out altogether.

    I have to say the Social Democrats are not proving to take this space from the National Coalition either, though I think there is much opportunity for it now. Why is it, that while Finnish primary education is lauded best in the world, nobody seems to ask why these globally overachieving pupils then go to mediocre universities and come out mediocre graduates? Why is it that the Finnish university sector now functions on a completely different set of rules than other educational sectors – they have been privatised, expected to increase their funding from other than public sources, business has been let into their top decision making process and are affecting what is funded and researched, and, eventually, taught? Why are universities such bad employers, paying very little and offering short and uncertain employment? Why does the prime minister call this all fantastic?

    I’m personally deeply worried for the entire university sector, especially so as it seems in the political elite there is very little inclination or expertise to come up with an educational vision. The only educational comments that seem to be based on some form of reality have lately come from a couple of Greens, but they’re too small to really influence it and besides will sign off to any educational system the conservatives can think of if they ensure the children will be brought up opposing nuclear power.

    As for the state of Finnish political journalism – ahh that’d be a whole other comment. Perhaps tomorrow. Thanks again for the article, was really an interesting read!

    • Dear Anna, thanks for your really interesting comment! There are some disturbing similarities between UK education and what is developing in Finland. As you say, the dearth of a genuinely ethical backbone means that neo-liberals across Europe are struggling to conceive of coherent and incisive educational policies, but they’ve tangled them up with the ideology of the market, and not, as you say, with sound educational pragmatism, an imaginative and ambitious sense of human potential, and the acknowledged value of social cohesiveness.

      I think it’s astonishing that the right/conservatives/neo-liberals, whatever we are calling them, can still be arguing for market-led educational reform, as if we can think of education as part of the same model as, say, supermarkets. And we know where that leads us. The UK presents a terrible spectre of what happens when education is turned into a political boxing ring and a short-cut to elite status for (a mostly undeserved) few. Once private share-holding interests come into play, as they presumably will be with the example of Rovio’s entry into education, we can only speculate now as to how this will effect educational resources and policy.

      Social cohesion is highly dependent on educational parity, as Finland shows over the UK. It strikes me as profoundly cynical and destructive of that cohesion for the right to be rubbing their hands at the possibility of dissolving educational parity because of a desire for status, the benefits of an insidious elitism (and the UK government should be a warning for any country concerning elitism), and the irrational determination to see their pernicious ideology win out over more humane solutions.

      It seems to me that it does come down to a psychological profile of those who believe that life can simply be divided into winners and losers. There should be much more psychological analysis of political debate if we want to move political decision making on from the evidently disingenuous level it works on. Claims for pragmatism from the right are underpinned by ideology, whether the advocates on the right are aware of it or not. As you say, at least the left have an ethical position, which is based on a notion of people and their worth and equality, and not a very spurious set of divisive values or, simply, the will to cash in off others. As you say, how impoverishing it must be to live by this cynical self-serving ideology.

      Concerning universities, that again shows disturbing signs of having gone the same way as the UK. Funding for arts and humanities has been slashed to, frankly, dangerous levels throughout the West. Dangerous because, for the benefits of commercial short-sightedness, a humanist link in knowledge, sensibility, scholarship, and the ethical values that are inherent to the humanities is being severed.

      Who can claim the right to do that? It is a travesty of human culture and history on an unprecedented scale, that is, other than the 20th century examples of the cultural and intellectual dissolution brought about by totalitarian rulers. Goebbels couldn’t have done it better himself (“When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my revolver”) and yet this is done in the name of pragmatism and the apparently ‘natural’ consequences of the free-market. If it were to have a medical equivalent, this irrational market-based ideology could be compared to those sects who won’t take drugs to treat cancer. And yet, if the financial sector had truly been abandoned to the ‘natural’ course that it insists it represents, then governments (us lot) wouldn’t have bailed it out.

      It’s interesting to see that more UK students, and their parents, are considering Finnish universities because of the rise in fees in the UK. Maybe Finland needs to import a whole load of foreign academics as well, which might have some effect on competitive standards!

      Obama just made a speech to workers at the General Electric plant in Wisconsin, saying that skilled manufacturing workers can earn a lot more than someone with a degree in Art History. That speaks volumes about the values that are not only financially rewarded today, but also which carry an assumed ‘ethical’ value of social contribution. The restoration of humane values to society and political debate cannot be left to those who wish to reduce human value to the sum of a wage packet, and that’s if you’re lucky.

      • Dear Donna, I agree with you fully on the above. I find it rather interesting how abandoning the financial sector to the natural course of things has actually been proven not to work at all – take for instance Alan Greenspan’s admission of his ideological failure – and is not even popular in political rehtoric, as is evident all over Europe in the notions that bailouts and austerity work as a means of taking control of the market forces. Yet for a certain brand of right wing idealists no amount of reality is enough to convince them that if left completely unhindered, the market would work – perhaps it would be best if humans were taken out of it.

        There is a distinct lack of discussion about basic moral philosophy. In a way as a leftie I feel slightly cheated by the fact that I suddenly need to represent an ethical backbone in political debate; I mean up until a few years ago my views were basically regarded as borderline treasonous, silly notions of an anarchist radical tendency and most likely involving growing weed while reading Marx at home on the dole. Of course when you really think about it, Marx did write a bunch of stuff about how capitalism is a serious threat to all sorts of decent morals, but I’m not still really sure if this’d be a good remark to make. However what really surprised me a few years back in Finland was how thin or non-existent basic ethics suddenly seemed to be; racism and xenophobia are very efficient in showing this.

        It’s lead to having to question the entire educational system actually. You are right, arts and humanities have been slashed in Finland too, and it’s appalling what they’ve done in the UK. However I find it curious that academically educated people in arts and humanities – such as the linguist Mr Halla-aho – cannot distinguish between the concepts of intrinsic and instrumental value when discussing fundamental issues such as human dignity. I mean, there is something perverted in the fact you need to point out Plato to a person with a PhD in philology. It does not help really that the National Coalition then pays a forgettable amount of money for a distinguished academic such as Mr Himanen to come up with a confusing drivel on dignity that basically could have been copied and pasted from Mr Sarasvuo’s next corporate motivational consultancy gig notes scribbled in a Sunday morning hangover. If only von Wright would have realised that instead of all that boring shit about Wittgenstein he could’ve just written an essay on how he’d really like all people to like each other as that’d make the world so much nicer, then cashed in a half a million from the government and head out to Kallio to get laid and drunk wearing his underwear as a hat.

        So to my mind, the necessary counteract for phenomena such as Rovio or the fixation on certain innovative techy fields – don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with them, they just cannot be all there is – would be to seriously look at how ethics and humanities are being taught at the moment, and how much to start with. It really doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise you start going seriously wrong if you have a lot of people doing science with no real understanding of basic philosophy. I’ve seriously had discussions with some of my more nerdy friends, who are of the opinion that in the future fields like history will not be necessary anymore. Naturally as that’s what I’ve studied, I do get on the defensive in the face of such claims, but also it’s a bit frustrating. How do you go about explaining that increasing the amount of technology in our lives does not really eradicate reasons or the need to understand how society works?

  6. To the author: thank you so much for your acute, perceptive description of the depressing state of the UK nation. Dear Finns, don’t be deceived by the rhetoric of the the likes of Boris Johnson: The mayor of a supposedly great city who is more intent on conflict with the people who work day-to-day on the underground railway system (& seek to protect reasonable public safety… & their jobs… ) than establishing a sense of co -operation & mutual interest for the common good.
    Keep an open mind, of course, but in my view we in the UK have much, much more to learn from Finland’s social values than Finland has to learn from us. Want £70.00 per day for infant child care in draughty rooms? Primary schools without music tuition or sports facilities? Etc, etc, etc

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