20 April 2005

Seeking the good life

By Tapani Lausti

A recent finding according to which Finnish youths are less interested in party political life than their counterparts in other Nordic countries has triggered worried analyses in the media. An alarm has been sounded because of the great number of young people who have turned their backs on political parties and are reluctant to vote in elections. The debate has also, however, brought forward some interesting observations.

According to political reseachers from Tampere University, Finnish civil society in reality is buzzing with active political life with a flourishing pluralistic spectrum of participation and action. Old-fashioned party political activity is now rivalled by new channels of participation which offer either challenges to the parties or are complementary to them.

In an opinion-page article published in the leading Finnish national daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat (“Kansalaislähtöinen politiikka haaste vanhalle”, 29 March 2005) Tapio Häyhtö and Jarmo Rinne write that young people tend to concentrate on issues which emphasise individual autonomy, whereas political parties offer a ready-made collective world view: “The new politics takes as a starting point each individual’s life and the choices he or she makes: personal is political.”

Häyhtö and Rinne continue: “The issues taken up by the new politics are beyond traditional party politics: the right to define one’s own lifestyle and to be authentically oneself is something which does not tally with the collective and hierarchical truths offered by the parties.”

A recent survey about happiness in today’s Finland also revealed interesting attitudes. Philosopher Mikko Yrjönsuuri from Jyväskylä University summed up the findings in this way: “Money is not seen as something very important. Only basic income is needed for happiness.” (“Talouskasvu ei tee suomalaisia onnellisiksi”, Helsingin Sanomat, 21 March 2005)

Yrjönsuuri continues: “Also power and high social status in general are ranked very low. They are seen even as detrimental to happiness. Economic growth is seen as a threat to happiness. What seems to be at issue here is that the current atmosphere in work places is seen as too stressful.”

People are worried that if things are bad now, what will they be like when economic growth accelerates further? People are not against work but they want it to be interesting and safe.

All this was recently brought home by a best-selling book Työelämän huonontumisen lyhyt historia (Otava 2004)[A Short History of the Deterioration of Working Life] by historian Juha Siltala. Siltala quotes a work health researcher who says that “a huge human experiment is being carried out to find out how much can be squeezed out of people”. Siltala shows in his book that the owning class has taken class struggle to such extremes that the whole system is starting to totter.

People are fed up with fear-mongering about the welfare state which supposedly “paralyses activity and encourages overblown expectations which no system can satisfy”. This is nonsense. We know fully well that most people want to do a reasonable amount of work and are happy with a relatively modest standard of living if life in general is satisfactory.

The people whose expectations can never be satisfied are in fact those who want to downsize the welfare state – there seems to be no limit to their greed, as Siltala’s statistics clearly show.

In his concluding chapter about the crisis of legitimacy of “turbocapitalism” Siltala seems to be saying that no system can terminally destroy human instincts. “Many people do voluntary work not only to build up their own self-regard, to experience uplifting moments and to enjoy social contacts and social regard but also to help other people and prove themselves to be subjects capable of making moral choices.”

Perhaps capitalist ideology with its perverse order of moral priorities is slowly approaching its twilight. Perhaps people are first withdrawing to their personal priorities before they find a collective voice to search for alternatives.

See related articles in the archive: Society and Work

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