Thursday, November 03, 2005

Politics of no alternative

In Finland the loosely leftwing or anti-market intellectuals (in practice the overwhelming majority of them) have now spent over 10 years bitterly criticizing the prevailing economic policy of accommodating to the market needs and trimming down the welfare state. It does not seem to matter which parties or combinations are in power: economic policy - the very foundation of the political process - has been reduced to mechanical technocratic procedures outside any serious ideological or ethical debate. Or rather, there is a fierce debate in the society and the consensus view (rhetorically among the majority of the politicians as well) is that this should not be the case: economic politics should be a matter of ideology and ethics, a matter of rational choice. But this widespread consensus has no visible impact on the actual decisions. There never are alternatives.

Well, over 10 years is a long time - one would think that you would start wondering why nothing ever happens, why it is the factual case that economics are outside of ideology and ethics and uninfluenced by public debate and national consensus. To me it appears fairly straightforward: the Nordic welfare model never was anti-capitalist, rather it relied on capitalism to produce continuous growth which made it easy to redistribute wealth and provide humane safety nets and easy access to essential and highquality public services. Now the dilemma is clear: the essential motor and foundation of the welfare state must be modified in order for it to continue providing growth. But this time in this era of globalization and decontrol of the capital the modifications that are needed are mostly hostile to the principles and aims of the welfare state. Of the two I suspect the welfare state needs much more the market economy than vice versa: the servant has become the master (probably it always was the case). In this situation the old mechanics don't work - but how can we ever fix the situation if we don't first acknowlege this crucial bond between the free market economy and the Nordic model? Though, chillingly, this endless moaning might be the only - and totally useless - tool we are left with.

To me it begins to look as if the Social Democratic compromize was just a brief phase: we tied ourselves to a far too dynamic and destructive force - and we proved unable to control it, unable to control the forces of history. So, economic growth is no more automatically beneficial to the welfare structures, rather the opposite, but the welfare state will still desperately need growth to stay viable. That's why we are paralysed and unable to do what we would want to do: there is no mechanism to do that - to turn back would need a global, rational consensus to control capital and investment. I can't see that happening. The crux of the matter might be that we simply are fundamentally not able to direct our path in the way necessary - destructive capitalism is the only mechanism that delivers but it functions because we are not capable of rational and ethical control. If we were capable of that, we would abolish much of the present economic structures, much of the present autocontrol and blind, destructive change. But we can't. This is no doubt quite a bleak view but then times are bleak.


helsinkian said...

Your post seems to say that all intellectuals over here ever do is moan and that's all there is to be done anymore. That's quite pessimistic and I'm not at all sure that the issue of who are the majority of intellectuals is that relevant. Ideas matter more than the quantity of intellectuals. Being in the majority is not necessarily the most beneficial condition for intellectual development to begin with.

You are talking about forces of history and capitalism leaving no alternative. But we're not living in China. Do people here really believe in forces of history in the sense that people are totally powerless? Economic growth being bad or good for social development is not a straightforward issue, we're talking about one indicator here and societies are much more complex beings, their health being measured in many ways.

The worst cases of capitalism being oppressive are usually countries where the one-party state has a political monopoly. Democracy brings all sorts of avenues to influence capitalist development with it.

I think you're actually criticizing the consensus-based politics of Finland. Are we more into agreeing with everyone than into challenging existing realities?

There is no way back to the past. The burning issues of the day are new and we can't revive what we had twenty or thirty years ago. If you ask me, many things have improved in this country lately. The future is challenging for sure but all of this is about priorities. Aren't most political decisions being made so that we choose one alternative over the other? I think we should debate more the pros and cons of each choice and try to see what alternative futures for us all could look like.

stockholm slender said...

Well, you make good points, as usual, but, yes, I do see history as a structural process and almost completely independent of our long term aims - of course at the same time it is chaotic and random. (Chaos of course is quite a deterministic concept.) And I do criticize this ineffectual consensus: basically everyone agrees that the welfare state is beneficial and criticizes the prevailing economic policy. But the policy never changes - so we keep our opinions and the historical change keeps its direction. Our opinions are disconnected from history which is something our public intellectuals never discuss. How can you debate social issues meaningfully if you don't have a coherent theory of social change? Yes, I think that our public discussion is shallow and fairly meaningless and will never lead to saving the welfare structures – is it even aimed to do that?