Saturday, July 26, 2014

Racism masquerading as critiques of social democracy

Image: In popular imagination, Finland was always a harmonious, prosperous society. This painting by Eero Jarnefelt (Under the Yoke, 1893) captures some of the poverty and oppression of Finnish society in recent history (source; click on image for larger view).

In reading a silly article about the Finnish education system giving their students 15 minute breaks to run around outside for every 45 minutes of teaching--and how Finland's education system is the best in the world in part because of this practice, not in spite of it--it became obvious how outright racism is the typical explanation of the success of social democratic programs:

The cultural, genetic, or racial superiority of the Finns, apparently, decides their fate as the world's best primary and secondary students. Another commenter makes more of an effort to veil his racism:

This commenter at least tries to cloak his racism in the cultural legacy of slavery and Jim Crow era policies, a fundamentally racist argument utterly demolished by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

It's important to note that this point of view is usually limited to ignorant Internet comments, since it becomes quite obviously untenable with even cursory research. The PISA tests compare student achievement in different countries. Finland tops the PISA rankings, with Sweden close behind. Norway, another Scandinavian social democracy, ranks surprisingly low. Clearly, there is something special about Finnish educational policies, not their society.

Additionally, if homogeneity at a national level is so important, then it's as though the black children in Chicago's south side are so evil that they are able to negatively influence the performance of white students in West Virginia. West Virginia has a population over 90% non-Hispanic white; their education system is the envy of no one.

Nevertheless, unsupported arguments that the success of the social democracies are owed in part to their ethnic homogeneity go unchallenged in respectable publications. I wrote previously about an otherwise insightful essay on the problems of the Brazilian health care system, which begins:
In other words, universal healthcare looks very different in Brazil than it does in, say, Scandinavia. Finland, for example, provides free healthcare to all its citizens, but the country is smaller and more homogeneous than the state of Minnesota.
But the article is about issues of underfunding and physicians not wanting to practice in the jungle. Not a shred of evidence is marshaled to defend the idea that ethnic homogeneity is necessary for social democratic programs succeed. I wrote:
If cultural and ethnic homogeneity are necessary for universal social welfare programs, how are Social Security and Medicare so successful in the United States? Social Security taxes get deducted from my paychecks even though my coworkers are black, white, Asian, and Latino. My grandmother's Social Security benefits get deposited in her bank account each month even though she doesn't share the same religion as her neighbors.
Such arguments show--at best--stunning ignorance; at worst, thinly veiled racism. These views conveniently ignore Scandinavian history as well as the resounding success of social democracy in Kerala, a state in India with large minority groups.

This issue is too much to cover in a single post, so I'll break it into four parts. Here, part 1 will examine the case that social democracy can only exist in a country that is already wealthy, cohesive, egalitarian, and/or harmonious. As we shall see below, Finland is a perfect example of an oppressed, divided nation that nevertheless succeeded as a social democracy. Part 2 will take on the contention that social democracy can only succeed in a place that is culturally, ethnically, religiously, or otherwise homogeneous. Part 3 will make the case that social democracies succeed because of the strength of their social welfare policies, and for no other reason. Part 4 will tie these ideas together by comparing the quality of life indicators in the American city with the highest poverty rate--Detroit--versus those of Finland on the eve of its transition to social democracy. Conditions in present-day Detroit are indeed appalling, but 1920's Finland was a far more impoverished and divided society. If backwards Finland can transform itself into a country with the lowest infant mortality rate in the entire world, Detroit can obviously undergo a similar transition.

An oppressed society
Today, Finland is a prosperous, egalitarian society. It wasn't always so. In the 1200's, Finland was conquered by Sweden. For the next seven centuries, Finns were vassals in their own home. While ruled by Sweden for 550 years, all official matters, including courts, were conducted in Swedish, effectively shutting the Finns out from all political participation. Finnish prosperity was stolen by its foreign occupiers. In the late 1600's, a third of Finland's population died in a famine, and many more died shortly thereafter in an outbreak of the bubonic plague.

In the 1700's, Sweden and Russia used Finland as a battlefield for their frequent wars. This was devastating to Finland. In the first half of the 1700's, Finland was twice occupied by Russia. Over the seven years of the first occupation, an entire generation of young men was slaughtered.

Swedish occupation of Finland didn't end with independence; it ended with more than a century of Russian occupation. The frequent wars between Sweden and Russia continued until the early 1800's, when Russia conquered Finland in 1809. This war was called the "Finnish War" because the objective for both countries was to invade and occupy Finland. Russia reproduced many Swedish policies on their Finnish vassals, to similarly devastating effect. In the mid 1800's, Finland suffered another famine, which killed 15% of its population--a natural disaster that human incompetence turned into a human catastrophe.

In the Russian era, Finland was technically an autonomous Grand Duchy, though the Russians had the final say in all matters. The Finnish government was nothing more than a puppet of the Russians. Thus, when the Finnish Grand Duchy instituted universal suffrage in 1906, voting was utterly meaningless. The Finns had no control over their own country.

Russian occupation ended in 1917 with the collapse of the Russian imperial army in World War I. Thus, for nearly 700 years Finland was continuously occupied by oppressive foreign powers--over 550 years by the Swedish, and over 100 years by the Russians. For nearly seven centuries, Finns were prisoners in their own country.

To recap--nearly seven centuries of oppression at the hands of foreign occupiers ended in 1917. Remember, oppression is supposed to make social democracy impossible. Yet a mere nine years after the end of foreign occupation, Finland's first social democratic prime minister was elected in 1926; as we shall see in part 3, social democratic policies were first instituted in 1927. If an oppressed society cannot become a social democracy, then this should not have been possible. Finland proves that a society that has been oppressed for hundreds of years can become social democracy.

A divided society
The collapse of the Russian Empire towards the end of World War I created a power vacuum that various Finnish actors and Germany attempted to fill. Eventually, the factions united into two opposing camps. The Finnish Social Democrats--the "Reds"--and conservatives--the "Whites"--fought in a short but brutal civil war in 1917. With extensive military aid from the Germans, the Whites were ultimately victorious. The German Kaiser sent the Whites skilled military commanders and elite combat troops, all battle-proven veterans of the Eastern Front of World War I. German domination of Finnish politics was short-lived, however, as the very next year, the German lines on the Western Front collapsed to end World War I.

The civil war was devastating to Finland. Over 1% of the Finnish population died in this conflict, Finnish society was inundated with orphans, and key infrastructure was destroyed. The country was so battered by this war that it would take nearly a decade for economic activity to return to prewar levels. Political terrorism was widespread, though disproportionately committed by the Whites. The Whites executed thousands of Reds, Red sympathizers, and suspected Red sympathizers; thousands more died from mistreatment in White prison camps.

The brutality of the civil war left an enduring bitterness. Finns spoke of being so divided that Finland was essentially two countries. The country bore no resemblance to the harmonious, egalitarian country we know today. Yet less than a decade after this strife, the first Social Democratic prime minister of Finland, Vaino Tanner, was elected in 1926. As we shall see in part 3, social democratic policies were first instituted during this period of great division.

Finland proves that a social democracy can be created and succeed in a deeply divided country.

An impoverished society
Stunning levels of poverty and deprivation were made worse by World War II. The Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939, and fought the Finns again from 1941 to 1945. World War II ultimately killed 93,000 Finnish soldiers (out of a population of just over 3 million). 15% of the landmass of Finland, including several important ports and 20% of the industrial capacity of the Finnish economy, was lost to the Soviet Union. The conflict created 400,000 Finnish refugees feeling the chaos--over 10% of the total Finnish population--all of whom were never able to return to their homes due to the Soviet occupation. After the war, the Soviets forced the Finns to pay war reparations, encumbering the Finnish economy.

Yet despite the devastation and subsequent refugee crisis of World War II, Finland remained a social democracy. Social policies remained in place during the duration of World War II. Even poverty and an invasion by a world superpower did not make social democracy impossible.

Furthermore, the social welfare system of the social democracies--Finnish child care and education systems included--succeed in modern times with or without prosperity. Finland experienced an incredible economic depression in the 1990's:
Finland's real GDP dropped by about 14% from its peak in 1990 to 1993. By 1994 unemployment had reached nearly 20%, up from 3% four years earlier.
(more) This depression was caused by a collapse of the banking sector and exacerbated by the simultaneous collapse of the Soviet Union. At that time, trade with the Soviet Union accounted for 15% of the Finnish economy. Most of that 15% share of the Finnish economy simply disappeared overnight.

Yet despite a catastrophic economic depression, declines in infant mortality and increases in life expectancy continued apace. The social welfare system was unchanged by this economic depression. Indeed, Norway and Sweden also experienced similar--though not as severe--recessions in the early 1990's. These crises did not cause a collapse of their welfare states, either. If properly designed, social democratic programs can thrive even in severe economic recessions.

A common argument holds that social democracy is possible only in prosperous countries. The stunning poverty of postwar Finland, as well as their economic depression in the 1990's, makes this view untenable. So, too, do the experiences of Kerala, India, which has a per capital GDP ten times lower than that of Brazil.

Try to imagine what observers in the 1920's, 30's, or 40's saw. Behind centuries of oppression, decades of war, endemic poverty, stunning levels of infant mortality,* and bitter political divisions, no one would have expected Finland to lead the world in quality of life indicators in decades to come. No one would have assumed that Finland would eventually have the lowest infant mortality rate or the best child care and primary education systems in the entire world. There was no reason to assume Finnish children would thrive.

Finland became a social democracy as a deeply politically divided, impoverished, backwards, war-torn, oppressed, rural country with staggeringly high infant mortality rates and overall poor quality of life indicators. The endemic divisions and poverty within Finland through the 1920's and beyond cannot be overemphasized.

Yet through the institution of universal policies designed to maximize the potential of all, the Finnish child care and education systems became the envy of the rest of the world. Obviously, this was not inevitable. The unequaled achievement of Finnish primary students--despite a long and recent history of war, poverty, and bitter societal visions--is the result of decades of investment in social welfare, not an inevitability.

Uninformed, hand-wavy arguments about why social democracy succeeds rest on racist assumptions about the superiority of certain types of cultures. Among other problems, such misguided perspectives assume that Scandinavian societies existed in their present form 80, 90, or even 100 years ago. This is never true. For another example, Sweden is generally viewed as a utopia for labor relations, and has indeed boasted very low per capita work days lost to strikes for the past several decades. Yet Sweden used to have atrocious labor relations. In the 1920's and early 1930's, Sweden had the highest per capita work days lost to strikes, and in 1931, several striking workers were killed by Swedish government soldiers. Swedish labor relations improved only through smart social policy decisions that addressed the root causes of this disruption and violence. Scandinavian societies may be relatively harmonious now,** but they haven't always been that way, and--like any other European country--it was never inevitable that they eventually reach their present state.

Clearly, arguments that social democracy can only exist in a country that is already wealthy, harmonious, egalitarian, or cohesive, are entirely untenable. Even a cursory survey of Finnish history exposes these arguments as absurd.

Other posts in this series:
Part 1 (this page)
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

*Discussed in part 3 of this series

**Part 2 questions just how harmonious Scandinavia really is. In particular, Sweden recently experienced racially based rioting, and all Scandinavian countries have right wing xenophobic political activity.

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