Portrayed as dreamlands of equality and peaceful social democracy, the Nordic countries in recent years have seen a steep rise of the far right, both in party politics and on the streets. This is not as paradoxical as it sounds: the friendly welfare state has long hidden the ugly face of nationalism, opening a breeding ground for far-right ideas of the deserving ‘us’ and the undeserving ‘other’. To tackle fascism, we must question the very unit of the nation state and the ideology it was built on.
Centre of Helsinki, Finland, on a September Saturday. A group of big, white men stand at a busy square next to the railway station, with flags upright in a military fashion. The flags display a black arrow on a dark green background. The rune is the logo of a Nordic neo-Nazi organisation ‘The Nordic Resistance Movement’ (NMR). It’s led from Sweden, where it is strongest, but its aim is to unite the Nordic countries into one national socialist state.
The Finnish wing, established in 2008, is called SVL (Finnish Resistance Movement) – a militant, organised group with a membership of 60-70 people. It is a hierarchical organisation with different layers of membership, but the active members are expected to keep themselves physically fit by practising martial arts at least once a week. They say they organise outdoor activities as well as street activism. The members also travel a lot between Sweden and Finland, where NMR is most active although it also has groups in Denmark and Norway.
On the street on 10 September, some passers-by voice their disagreement with neo-Nazis demonstrating their ideology in the prime location of Helsinki. One young man apparently spits in front of the them – newspaper reports later tell that after a heated exchange of words, he turns to walk away when one SVL member kicks him in the chest, sending him to fly backwards and hurt his head. There is no disputing the injury: a propaganda video uploaded by SVL shows a person laying on the tarmac next to a puddle of blood. The man, Jimi Karttunen, is taken to hospital.
A week later, he is dead.
On the weekend after the assault, the alleged attacker turns himself in to the police. When asked by the media why they haven’t not arrested him yet, the police say they have been monitoring the suspect but the death of the victim has sped up the investigation. The chief inspector dodges any responsibility to comment on whether a violent neo-Nazi organisation should be able to distribute their propaganda in public: “That is a question for a wider debate in society that the Home Office has also commented on. Of course we [in the police] think about it.” His choice of words, decribing himself as a “toddler” leading the investigation, is widely ridiculed as an example of police’s incompetence.
It emerges that the suspect is one of the founding members of SVL; that he has a background of violent crime; and that he was the very person who made an official announcement of the neo-Nazi demonstration. (In Finland, you have to announce to the police that a demonstration is taking place. A permission is not needed, but the police can for example renegotiate the route of a march.) Still, the police is not present on the Saturday Jimi Karttunen walks the streets of central Helsinki for the last time.
The failure of liberal institutions.
The authorities know SVL to be a violent organisation. Their record over the last six years includes storming the publication event of a book on the Finnish far right, stabbing a security guard who prevented them from getting in; attacking the Pride parade in Helsinki with tear gas and pepper spray; and a similar attack against a left-wing politician who spoke at an event on gay rights. There have also been assaults on racialised Finnish people that have coincided with SVL demonstrations – but they have not led to convictions, and the connection has not been established in the courts.
There might be nothing surprising to the police’s inability to condemn fascist violence, especially as it is matched by those in power. It takes three days after Karttunen’s death for the prime minister to comment. In his statement he also refers to a murder that happened the previous week in Northern Finland, a shocking violent crime but without any political significance – except that the suspects were Iraqi asylum seekers, and in the Finnish political climate every random act of violence by immigrants is used as a political lever. The foreign secretary, leader of the right-wing populist ‘Finns Party’ (PS) party that is junior in the government, makes a similar non-statement saying all violence is wrong. The home secretary and the previous Home Secretary demand that extremist organisations are monitored more closely, forgetting it is in their power to do so.
Another MP from the prime minister’s Centre Party says the neo-Nazi attacker “probably had not meant to kill”. But the bottom line is reached by the deputy leader of PS who explains that “people are upset, for example because the debate on immigration has been suppressed so long. This is the result, which is really shocking.”
The xenophobic, populist PS rose from practically nowhere to the second-largest political force in Finland in the 2011 Parliamentary elections. Their strength is mainly due to a charismatic leader Timo Soini, good friends with Nigel Farage and on a personal crusade against the EU. Soini is an expert with playing games with the media, and has managed to simultaneously penetrate Finnish consciousness with his own vocabulary – his party is “not racist”, it is “critical towards immigration” – and keep his Farage-like image of an ordinary guy ridiculed for his looks by the liberal media, based in cities that have left so much of the population behind.
He is careful not to make overtly hateful comments, but consistently fails to condemn others in his party who do so. Two PS politicians have been convicted of inciting racial hatred, any many more are friendly with the far right.
Last year a PS MP, Olli Immonen, posed in a photo with SVL members at an event they attended together He was in fact standing shoulder to shoulder with the man now suspected of aggravated manslaughter for the September stabbing. A few months later, he caused an uproar after “…dreaming of a strong, brave nation that will defeat this nightmare called multiculturalism” in a facebook post that happened to coincide with the anniversary of Anders Breivik’s massacre in Norway. Another MP from the same party, Juho Eerola, has commented SVL’s acts of violence on social media: after the knife attack at the book publication event, he said it probably would make more sense next time to try to blend in rather than storming the building with a bag full of empty glass bottles. Both men are still members of a party in government.
A similar rise of right-wing parties has taken place across the Nordic countries. Last year, when the centre-right bloc won the Danish elections, the biggest winner of the night was the Danish People’s Party with an electoral platform to close borders. After the Norwegian 2013 elections, the Conservatives formed a government with the Progress Party. The Swedish Democrats have also broken the 20 per cent mark in polls since their 13% share in votes in the last elections in 2014, but with their roots in neo-Nazi movements, other parties have refused to share power with them (although coming close to them in policies, which the Swedish Democrats’ leader has declared a victory in itself).
Mainstream media – like the Guardian article behind the above link – usually tries to explain this phenomenon as linked to immigration. Sweden has long had a more open immigration policy, but Finland is a relatively closed society. All Nordic countries saw a steep rise in numbers of asylum seekers last year. But when we are dealing with political parties connected to organised Nazis and all state institutions including the media fail to hold them to account, the rise in immigration is a lazy explanation.
These societies need to ask themselves deeper questions about how the rise of the far right has been allowed to happen under progressive welfare policies and a broadly functioning representative democracy. How is the welfare state compatible with the blurred borders of the globalised era? Under what circumstances did the idea of statehood that we have taken for granted emerge? And what role has it played in the history of our continent that we have never adequately addressed? When looked at through the failures of the neoliberal state to respond to the majority’s needs and the blind belief Europe has fostered in our nationality being the right way to define us and organise our societies, the emergence of this new fascism becomes less surprising.
Beyond party politics.
Analysis of the rise of the far right also often focuses extensively on the party political sphere. Populist right-wing parties are more a symptom of the problem than the root of it. Politics happens everywhere, every day; it is not limited to big days when lines are drawn on ballot papers. But if over the years the political landscape changes slowly, almost unnoticed around us, it is often in the aftermath of those political events we notice how far we have got without looking out of the window. Just think of the morning you woke up and heard the Brexit vote had won, or Trump.
It is easy to be dominated by fear and helplessness; I remember watching the elections in Finland in 2011. It was the first time I was back after moving to London the previous year. There was all the joy of seeing old friends again, being reunited with a lover I had left behind, and it wasn’t until the next morning it hit me. The girlfriend walked me to the bus stop and kissed me goodbye, and all of a sudden I felt a sense of anxiety like never before. I realised that on the quiet streets of mid-morning Helsinki, one in every five people around us had voted for a party that was as deeply conservative and homophobic as it was xenophobic, and it stood against everything we were.
Old stone buildings towered around us, pale in the shy April sun I knew and loved. Nothing in Finland had changed. But somehow everything had changed and I didn’t know what to do about it.
A European condition.
Years ago I attended a workshop where an African speaker reflected: “You Europeans have a tendency towards fascism.”
It struck me, because after half a life of Eurocentric history lessons at school, I had learned to think of Nazism as the dark side of humanity; not the dark side of being European. Europe, in that narrative, was the continent that was home to civilisation and great ideas – of course not the only civilisation, but the only one that had lasted and therefore worth really talking about. And this prosperity we enjoyed today was largely due to an 18th-century ideology that had laid the cornerstones for the current modus operandi of the world: nationalism. Those great enlightened Europeans came up with the idea that every people, every nation should have their own state – and so the world we now know started to be born.
It is worth reiterating that I grew up in a country that has been occupied by both of its neighbours in turn and gained independence less than hundred years ago, only to fight two wars against Soviet Union that went on to repressing, brutalising and killing populations. That history is near, both geographically and temporally: Estonia, across the Baltic Sea, is almost visible from Helsinki on a clear day. My grandparents were from a southeastern part of Finland that was lost to Soviet Union.
Nationalism – the idea that a people have their own language, culture and state – has been incredibly important for countries like Finland. (And for example Scottish nationalism since the last independence referendum debate has been a predominantly positive one, exploring a national and cultural identity that has long been suppressed by ‘Britishness’.)
For years, I saw the state as something good. The Nordic model of a strong welfare state is a fairly benign form of the nation state. It the entity that supports you financially when all else fails; it provides you with good education and feeds you while doing so; it takes care of you when you are ill or old. I was well aware of the need to challenge the state monopoly of violence or its hyper-controlled borders – but I had thought of them as undesirable aspects of nation states rather than inherent to them.
But as has become increasingly clear with the rise of the far right, that separation is a fallacy. There is no welfare state without the borders around it that separate those entitled to benefits from those who are not.
An economic crisis will always be easy to convert into divisive rhetoric masked in the language of defending the welfare state – and in capitalism, especially in its financialised form where effective demand is realised through ever-increasing supply of credit when real wages are in a constant decline, there will always be crises. The one in 2008 was an illustration of what is at stake when the accumulation of surplus value leads to the growth of non-productive investment, intensifying the boom-bust cycle that is inherent to capitalism. What happens when public anger resulting from making the public pay for these crises is hijacked with divisive rhetoric is by now clear to the whole world. Trump is only the latest episode in a play that started when the financial collapse exposed the gulf that had been growing between the 1% and the 99%.
Many of the xenophobic, quasi-fascist parties around Europe are economically not right-wing at all. Their demands to close borders because “we cannot afford immigration and welfare” have proved immensely popular across European populations. Norway’s first Immigration Minister from the Progress Party put it: “Our society is not sustainable if too many people are living on public payouts rather than paying in”, and “we must bring down the number coming into Norway.”
The Progress Party has less obvious links to facist movements than the Finnish PS or the Sweden Democrats – Norway after Anders Breivik’s massacre has a different societal consensus when it comes to not tolerating fascism. But like its counterparts, the party still rides on an anti-immigration platform yet wants to defend the welfare state, strengthen the national health service, and would not rule our state ownership of strategic companies. There is nothing new to this logic: Mussolini provided Italians not only with divisive fascism but also welfare policies. And Trump is against free trade, at least in rhetoric.
Finland’s PS in turn has halved its support since entering a right-wing government that has diminished the power of unions and pushed through welfare reforms that allow private companies into the national health service. Partly a dynamic that always happens between government and opposition, this is symptomatic of the fact that many of their supporters are old social democrats. Across Europe, the rise of populist far-right parties has been mirrored by the decline of the old centre-left parties, as they have had little alternatives to offer to people.
There are many competing explanations to this: from globalisation and the pressure it put on workers’ rights to the snowball effect of Labour’s capitulation into New Labour in the late 1990s. But these are merely symptoms: the underlying current is that decades of neoliberalism have led us to believe there is no alternative. The neoliberal state was never a counter-force to the market; rather, the state under neoliberalism exists to guarantee the supremacy of the market and ensure it survives its own excesses.
In Britain, this marriage has been clear from the days of Thatcher’s savage neoliberal project and the state violence needed to suppress dissent so that it could be delivered, and it has been reiterated with the post-2008 crisis bank bail-outs and austerity. The Nordic countries on the contrary have seen a more gradual erosion of the welfare state that started with a deep depression in the early 90s. Thus, they – like most of Europe – have continued to live under the illusion that the state and neoliberalism are opposing forces, that a strong state is there to protect us from the excesses of the markets like it used to be under a more social democratic order. It is not: and when through austerity the nation state is stripped of its friendly state functions such as welfare provision, all that is left is nationalism. We should not be surprised when party politics reflect that, riding the sentiments of injustice but also legitimising extreme feelings of patriotism: from the PS election victory in Finland in 2011 to Brexit and Trump, the political rise of the right has brought an increase in hate crime.
The relationship between welfare provision and nationalism is also present on the streets, in a cruder form. The neo-Nazi SVL in Finland mobilises welfare provision in the style of the Greek Golden Dawn: helping ethnically Finnish people who are struggling. The appearance is fascist, but the logic is actually not far from a widely accepted model of welfare provision that you get with the right passport, social security number or address. It naturalises the idea that a people have something in common just because they inhabit the same geographic entity, using that imagined shared identity to divide people into deserving and undeserving. Or trustworthy and criminal.
Last winter, street patrols emerged in several Finnish towns. They were called Soldiers of Odin, and riding on the aftermath of New Year’s night in Cologne, in their own words they were out to safeguard Finnish women against violence from foreigners. In a climate where centres hosting asylum seekers were firebombed, this obviously added to the way migrants and racialised Finns were made to feel unsafe. However, the first reaction from the police was that “all voluntary work is useful in these difficult times. It is positive that citizens are interested in the safety in their areas.”
Historically, Finland never dealt with the far-right movements influential in the 30s and 40s. Why would it have – Finland was assisted by Nazi Germany in resisting the Soviet occupation. When fascist organisations were banned after the wars, it was more because of the pressure from Soviet Union – hugely influential over Finnish politics at the time – than from a societal consensus against fascism.
The little country just got on with building a social order that would not leave space for extremism in any form, social democracy: a tame capitalist state that was sheltered from the crises of capitalism. This did widely work in the post-war era, but the disappearance of that world – and the emergence of neoliberalism and globalisation – have led to the need to look critically at the construct and the forces it has allowed to flourish.
Finland is no exception. It is all of us Europeans who have to relearn and reinterpret our history – decolonise it – and we need to deconstruct the idea of national boundaries to do that. Nationalism was originally and has always been a European ideology: it was exported into the rest of the world by colonialism. Where borders were drawn artificially and ethnic groups set against each other, violent conflict and genocide followed.
The ethnic tensions that led to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 go back to the colonial masters’ favouring of Tutsis over Hutus because of their more “European” appearance; colonial legacy is also in the heart of the turmoil raging in the Middle East. In the words of Robert Fisk, ISIS has “captured symbolically – but with almost breathtaking speed – what so many Arabs had sought for almost exactly 100 years: the unravelling of the fake borders with which the victors of the First World War – largely the British and the French – had divided the Arab people. It was our colonial construction – not just the frontiers we imposed upon them, but the administrations and the false democracies that we fraudulently thrust upon them, the mandates and trusteeships which allowed us to rule them – that poisoned their lives.”
The marriage of the nation and colonialism also distorts our understanding of our own history: focusing on the role of each country in the colonial project erodes the fact that every white European benefits from the structure of white supremacy that colonialism established. Notions like British colonialism was somehow more benign than Belgian, or that countries like Finland or Sweden did not participate in the colonial project – when the indigenous Sami populations in the north of these countries still fight for recognition of their right to their land – are meaningless whitewashing.
When the tectonic plates of politics shift and shake us, we have a tendency to huddle together. It can be in form of an angry protest, like after the Tories’ election victory last year, or a quiet remembering like after Jo Cox’s murder. In Helsinki after Jimi Karttunen’s death it was a 15,000-strong demonstration for peace, against racism and hate.
It would be easy to dismiss the wider political significance of these collective moments, thinking they change little but give us personal reassurance that there are others who feel the same way. But what else is society, or politics, than a consensus of what we are together? And when fascists try to shift that consensus by violence, our strength must come from a collectiveness. Strength to publically disagree with Nazis when they demonstrate on the streets because we know there are more of us than them; to not be afraid when we walk on the streets, regardless of the colour or of our skin, religion or whose hand we hold, because we can trust to be part of the society.
That collectiveness must reflect the world we live in today. It cannot be built on premises that worked in a different era; and it cannot be built on the illusion that we can have a friendly capitalism or a friendly state. The anti-fascist consensus we need to build to tackle the rise of the right in Europe has to be based on an honest discussion of who we are, of the baggage we carry from centuries of nationalism and colonialism, recognising how both of these have led to the emergence of the fascism we are dealing with now.
It is a collectiveness that cannot be built on the unit of a nation state, but on relationships directly with people around us as well as around the world, commonly taking responsibility of each other and resources around us.