The recent parliamentary elections in Finland gave rise to a new government headed by the Social Democrats (SDP), together with the previously ruling Centre Party, the Greens, the Left Alliance, and the Swedish People’s Party (RKP). As has been the tradition for decades, this coalition between the working-class parties (SDP and Left Alliance) with the Centre Party, traditionally seen as the representative of rural landowners, is being called “popular front” (Fin., kansanrintama). One can legitimately suspect of the accuracy of the designation applied to this executive, in view of the traditional concept of “popular front”. The Centre Party’s class nature has deeply changed since the party’s heyday in post-World War II Finland. I would hesitate to call the present-day Centre Party a peasant organisation, as it was in the mid-twentieth century, instead of categorising it simply as a bourgeois party. Anyway, this is a matter which requires deeper research upon the history, political programme and class composition of the Centre Party, an inquiry which in no way can be fulfilled in this article.
Let us succinctly analyse what Finland’s “popular front” holds through a reading of its programme, before the right declares the Nordic country a new Venezuela or Jacobin proclaims it a socialist Eden (the latter process has already begun, though not on the Jacobin).
Positive (Half) Measures
After the outgoing right-wing government’s austeritarian onslaught, it’s not surprising that some of the reforms included in the new government’s programme, although quite timid, appear utterly progressive. While the previous government severely cut social spending, the new government is committed to raise some welfare benefits, for example, lower pensions (below 1000€/month and possibly those between 1000€ and 1400€), child support for single parents, etc. This requires a reinforcement of welfare spending but, as far as we know, those investments won’t cover the massive cuts of previous years. Prime Minister Antti Rinne’s (SDP) executive also aims to extend compulsory education to 18 years (secondary education becomes compulsory and free of charge), and cancel previous limitations to the subjective right to childcare, which affected particularly unemployed workers. The previous government’s ill-famed “active model” for unemployment support, which basically is a means to slash unemployment benefits, will be revoked. The government additionally intends to alleviate taxes on lower incomes, among other reforms that, while progressive, are very limited.
The government programme is what we could expect from a centrist, “popular front” executive: a long list of good intentions and half measures. Even the implementation of the aforementioned progressive reforms may be at risk, since the Centre Party was able to secure the Ministry of Finance. In other words, the political force that led the previous right-wing executive now holds the ministry that ultimately controls the purse strings. This means that, at the sight of any signs of a coming crisis and recession, cuts and austerity are due to come back, perhaps this time with the acquiescence of the left parties.
Although the Finnish bourgeoisie frowns upon many of Rinne’s announced intentions and definitely would rather see its traditional party, the National Coalition, in power for four more years, the “popular front” is no menace for the country’s ruling class. The reinforcement in public spending is covered by raises in consumption taxes, for example on tobacco and alcohol, instead of tightening Finland’s low corporate tax, raising taxation over capital gains, or reinstating the wealth tax (Fin. varallisuusvero).
Militaristic Politics to Continue
One of the aspects that baffled many left-wing activists in Finland was the new government’s programme continuity in relation with its predecessor’s militaristic policies. Rinne’s executive intends to develop close cooperation with NATO, besides taking forward the purchase of 64 fighter aircraft that will cost taxpayers tens of billions of euros throughout the following years. The Finnish “popular front” government also intends to acquire four military vessels for the country’s navy. It is quite telling that all throughout the programme one sees references to concerns with the “balance of public accounts”, but this preoccupation seems to vanish when it comes to the military, as billions are drained to new war toys, war games with NATO, etc. The Centre Party has also been able to secure the Ministry of Defense, thus stressing that, in terms of war policy, Finland remains on the same path as the previous right-wing government. Furthermore, Rinne also aims to develop Finland’s arms industry, despite criticisms over Finnish arms deals with despotic, belligerent and genocidal states like Saudi Arabia or Israel.
Refugees’ Rights Remain Unaddressed
One of the elements susceptible of causing frictions within the coalition is the refugee question. Finland’s previous government included the far-right party The Finns (literally, “Basic Finns”, Perussuomalaiset) in its coalition and adopted the party’s harsh immigration politics. The Immigration Office (Migri) was politically guided to produce more negative decisions on asylum applications; countries like Iraq or Afghanistan were deemed safe to deport people; juridical assistance to asylum seekers was weakened; family reunification was made practically impossible for refugees; deportations were a daily practice, many times with use of physical force; whole families, including children, were hunted down by the police and detained as common criminals.
Finland’s practices regarding asylum seekers were more than once criticised in international organs. For example, the United Nations refugee organisation UNHCR sharply criticised Finland’s practices with asylum seekers, and a French court ruled that an Iraqi national shouldn’t be deported to Finland according to the Dublin Regulation, since the court had reasonable doubts that this person’s human rights wouldn’t be safeguarded in Finland.
Rinne’s government is committed to annul some of the previous government’s measures. For example, it aims to re-establish asylum seekers’ right to juridical support during their application; to facilitate family reunification; to grant the opportunity for asylum seekers whose application has been rejected to remain in Finland through employment-based visas; to raise the number of quota refugees to be accepted per year; and to promote refugees’ access to education. But this represents more of an attenuation of the previous government’s strict immigration policies, than an actual step forward or a clear break with xenophobic politics.
In the first place, Rinne will continue Finland’s militaristic policies, as we saw above. Arguably the main sources of refugees, imperialistic wars and the military industrial complex, remain untouched. The government programme is also adamant in stating that asylum seekers’ deportations will continue and indeed will be made “more efficient”. The criminalisation of the refugee status through punitive measures like detention of asylum seekers that were unsuccessful in their application will also continue. Regarding this, the new government goes no further than stating that, from now on, “technical surveillance” will be an alternative measure to detention, something that has been interpreted in public discussion as the application of ankle monitors on asylum seekers. This is presented by some on the left as a more “humane” measure, when compared to detention. I say that it is simply another punitive measure and it is outright shameful that the Finnish left is content with this, omitting this fact completely from the praises it has been singing towards the new “left government” in English-language media.
The “World’s Most Ambitious Environmental Politics”?
Right after the conclusion of the negotiations for the new government programme, Pekka Haavisto, former leader of the Greens and new Minister for Foreign Affairs, declared the document to be “the world’s most ambitious environmental politics”. This says more about postmodern “green” liberalism’s political bankruptcy than the new government’s environmental ambitions. One may argue that the programme sets ambitious targets, such as making the country carbon neutral by 2035 and carbon negative by 2050. Still, one would think that such bold objectives would require radical environmental policies, right? Policies that necessarily touch the very economic fabric of the country, right? Well, not exactly.
The only concrete measure up until now is an environmentally-motivated fiscal reform that includes a tax hike on fossil fuel, etc. As to the rest, one needs only to take a quick look at the programme to realise that the “world’s most ambitious environmental politics” consists mostly of “assessing”, “evaluating”, “developing”, “fostering”, “setting a workgroup to assess” this, “creating a roundtable to evaluate” that, but very few concrete measures, let alone those emergency measures that the current environmental crisis imposes upon us. As an example, the programme recognises the necessity of investments in renewable energy, but when it comes to building, let’s say, wind power stations, the government aims to just let it happen “on the markets’ conditions”. Let’s just wait until investment in renewable energy becomes a profitable business and then let capitalists take matters in their own hands. The centrality of nuclear power in the country’s energy production is to be maintained, something that might sound reasonable if we consider exclusively the reduction of carbon emissions, but ignore wider long-term effects on the environment. The Finnish left has apparently abandoned its anti-nuclear stance and the emphasis on the necessity of developing renewable energy sources. As University of Helsinki’s professor of environmental politics Janne Hukkinen has noted, the government programme sets hard objectives, but soft measures.
The global environmental crisis has put the necessity of socialism and communism back in the agenda. It’s clear that the preservation of a life-sustaining environment demands radical measures that touch upon the heart of the current economic system. In order to save the planet, we have to supersede capitalism; we have to move forward towards an economy where human and environmental needs are the main focus, instead of profiteering; we have to move towards the collectivisation of the economy and its democratical planning along rational lines; we have to move towards socialism. The Finnish left should have emphasised that, instead of being satisfied with a half-baked environmental programme that does little more than appease our first-world liberal consciences while humankind marches steadily towards disaster.
The Least Worst We Could Get… But Not Nearly Enough
One thing is clear: we couldn’t get anything better than this from the current relation of forces in the Finnish parliament. The parliamentary opposition consists of the same right-wing and far-right parties (National Coalition and The Finns) that have unmercilessly strangled workers’ throats during the previous four years. In this light, it is quite understandable that Finnish leftists are over the moon with these results.
But things have to be analysed coldly and objectively: this is not even nearly enough. There isn’t a clear break with neoliberalism and the European Union’s (EU) policies; there are no radical measures to halt climate change or reverse the degradation of the environment as a whole; there is no fiscal reform directed specifically at the wealthiest; there are no wide public investment plans or the reduction of the workday’s duration to promote employment; there is no intention of nationalising the strategic sectors of the economy or even re-nationalising those sectors which have been privatised in recent years (for example, electricity distribution, whose recent privatisation led to an astronomical rise in prices); and the reinforcement in public spending won’t compensate recent budgetary cuts.
Even in Keynesian terms, this is a quite conservative programme, whose “boldness” is restricted to an intended return to Finland’s post-World War II social democratic welfare state; a completely anachronistic demand in the age of decaying capitalism. The fact that such a programme has been extolled by many on the Finnish “radical” left tells more about the solidity of right-wing hegemony than the “ambitiousness” of Finland’s “left turn”. The fact that we couldn’t get anything better from this parliament tells more about the caducity of parliamentarism and bourgeois democracy than the progressiveness of Rinne’s executive.
It also tells a lot about the limitations of Finland’s left-wing parties. Contrary to what one might read in certain media, the Left Alliance is not a socialist party, at least if we adopt the conventional definition of socialism based on the common property of the means of production and the rational planning of the economy. As one can easily conclude from an analysis of the party’s programme, it is basically a left social democratic party which aims to alleviate the worst consequences of capitalist development. Socialism, i.e, the radical transformation of the economic structure and its social relations, is completely absent from the party’s programme and everyday activity. Thus, this is what the Left Alliance was made for: to be the “left wing” of the bourgeois democratic regime; to give capitalism a more “humane” face through participation in reformist governments; to manage capitalism and sugar-coat its worst consequences. This is the best they could do, and we couldn’t expect more from them. But it would be either naive or altogether hypocritical to sell this as some groundbreaking development, rather than a very limited advance from the hell that the right-wing imposed upon Finland’s workers during the recent years.
But the fact that we couldn’t expect more from the Left Alliance shouldn’t prevent us from criticism. The question is that there isn’t a radical left alternative in Finland; much less a revolutionary left alternative. The traditional communist parties (SKP and KTP) carry the weight of decades of uncritical support towards twentieth-century “actually existing socialism”, something that has meant a very suspicious attitude (if not outright hostility) from the majority of Finnish workers. To this we must add the observation that these parties haven’t been able to renew themselves after the fall of the Soviet Union. On the contrary, they are stuck in the mire of fossilised ideological premises, from ossified Stalinism and social chauvinism to neo-Eurocommunist and opportunistic tendencies (however draped in “modern”, “twenty-first century” garments). At the strictly organisational level, on the other hand, they are almost completely inoperative, at the least from the point of view of building a credible revolutionary workers’ party.
The realisation of the environmental crisis we are facing, which puts human extinction within the realm of possibility, has underlined socialism’s actuality, but there is yet no political agent able and willing to adopt the necessary programme; to organise the social forces on whose hands lies the responsibility for civilizational progress, i.e, the working class; and to lead them towards the revolutionary transformation that is unavoidable if we want to survive as species. Here’s the gigantic task that lies before the more advanced sectors of Finland’s and the world’s working classes.
I’d really like to concur with the Finnish left’s over-optimistic appreciation of the “popular front” but, following Gramsci, I think that one should temper the optimism of the will with a healthy dose of pessimism of the intellect.