The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the chapter about “How Politics Changed”, the rise of post-materialist values and the progressive developments in the Nordic countries.
It seems as if one meta-ideology has been victorious and come to dominate the entire political spectrum in the Nordic countries. On the surface level you’ll find parties that nominally subscribe to traditional ideologies such as socialism, liberalism and conservatism like in any other western democracy, but if you look closely you’ll notice that they often have more in common with one another than their apparent equivalents in other countries, and that all of them seem to advocate some form of social-liberalism, with at least a modicum of green, environmentalist hue. All of the parties that are currently represented in the parliaments of the Nordic countries have diverged significantly from their ideological roots to an extent where they in practice subscribe to different variants of the same overarching ideology – a meta-ideology that appropriately can be described as “Green Social Liberalism”.
You only have to look at the political “game of thrones” in these countries to see that this is the case. There are no represented parties in any of the Nordic countries that want to abolish or, in practice, even seriously challenge the market economy. There are, furthermore, no parties that want to abolish the welfare state – not even the young hardliner libertarians of Denmark, called Liberal Alliance. (Being the most radical of them all, their long-term goal is to lower income taxes to a not so mindboggling 40 percent.) And there are no parties that don’t at least give lip service to ecological sustainability.
”The only way you can make a nationalist or conservative argument in Sweden these days is by claiming that you are conserving the national qualities of Green Social Liberalism.”
All Parties in All Nordic Countries are in Effect Green Social-Liberals
This peculiar development even includes the nationalist party in Sweden, called the Sweden Democrats, founded through a merger of neo-Nazis and a “populist” tax-cut and anti-immigration party, who are nominally pro-abortion, pro women’s rights and claim to have a responsible environmental agenda. Their conservative program must be dressed up in social-liberal robes in order to survive at all: they are against immigration, of course, but the way they legitimize such resistance is by claiming that immigration threatens the welfare state and the liberal values of native Swedes, often revolving around women’s rights, and sometimes even gay rights. They also claim to defend small-scale Swedish entrepreneurs and industries by not requiring as high tax rates to fund the often costly immigration, claiming that funds should be used for foreign aid instead of prolonged integration processes of the newly arrived. In other words: this is nationalism and social conservatism under the banner of Green Social Liberalism. The only way you can make a nationalist or conservative argument in Sweden these days is by claiming that you are conserving the national qualities of Green Social Liberalism. In order to gain respectability, the Sweden Democrats have gradually lowered their tolerance for anti-liberalism and racism, leading to the expulsions of more and more members after faux pas in mass- or social media. The party recently broke off with its entire youth corps, after these had elected a too nationalistically inclined young woman as leader. On their pamphlets the Sweden Democrats display their male leader on the back seat of a bike – two female politicians in front, steering the tandem bike. The message is clear: “You can trust us; we play safely within the field of the Green Social Liberal meta-ideology.” And the leader of Christian Democrats joins the fray, marching in the Pride parade.
If you look at the center-left and center-right parties that have hitherto been the largest and dominant ones – indeed, having defined the major divide in politics, like in other countries – they are quite close to one another, both rhetorically and in practice. Sweden had a period of eight years of center-right government from 2006-2014, breaking its long tradition of social democracy. The center-right won, in large part, by promising not to change key features of social democracy, claiming to be the new workers’ party. Indeed, they were influenced by the “third way” New Labour politics of Tony Blair and Anthony Giddens in the UK. When the Danish Social Democrats came to power in 2011, together with a socialist party that once housed many Trotskyists, and a small social-liberal party, they proceeded by more or less copying the Swedish center-right policy implementation. When the Swedish Social Democrats finally took the power back in 2015, by a very thin margin, they promised not to roll back the market-liberal reforms made by the center-right and seem to have copied the slogans of the Danish center-right, defining themselves, rather neutrally, as “the future party”.
I could go on, discussing how the Left (left of center-left) has become social-liberal, how social-liberalism has become an explicit part of the Green parties, how the actual, historical social-liberal parties have all but vanished, as their niche was taken up by all the others, and so forth. Today, some newspapers, public intellectuals and ex-politicians are even calling out for an alliance between the two major parties – the center-left and center-right – in order to leave out the nationalists and the progressive parties deemed too irresponsible. This would, of course, ruin the whole dramaturgy of the current system of party politics, causing a major drop in support both for the center-right and the center-left, as they would both lose their identities without their main adversary. But it is a telling sign that serious commentators are making such suggestions.
…and All the Political Parties are Delivering the Same Goods, More or Less
A little percentage lower taxes here, a percentage higher immigration there, but it is all within the same over-arching political framework; all parties in all the Nordic countries adhere to the same dominant Green Social Liberalism, even if wet revolutionary dreams and fascism sometimes resurface in individual politicians (who are then instantly hounded off the stage).
And when push comes to shove, all the parties will defend the state bureaucracy and institutions, despite their liberal rhetoric. During the dramatic increase of arrivals of refugees from Syria and other countries in 2015, even Sweden’s coalition between Social Democrats and Greens slammed the door shut the moment that the administrative systems became overburdened (which was loudly criticized by most of the rightwing parties as violating human-rights and liberal notions of solidarity). This move was not rhetorically justified in nationalist or state bureaucracy terms but, of course, as a defense of a long-term, sustainable, liberal and social immigration policy.
But even if all of the parties in the Nordic countries gravitate towards the same overarching ideology and more or less tend to offer the same things, it doesn’t necessarily mean that politics has moved to the center, in fact, there is no center.
”What we have is one victorious meta-ideology, one recipe for society that has beaten its competitors when it comes to functionality and rhetorical edge. It is this meta-ideology that is disguised as a ‘center’, as being the sensible, moderate form of politics. The ‘middle’ is a position that under other circumstances would have appeared as extreme.”
There is No “Center” of Politics
In popular parlance this phenomenon (of one winning meta-ideology) goes by different names: that all the parties have “gathered around the center”, that the “political scale has been compressed” and the like. The Left, both academic and populist, is thrilled to be shocked by how “ultraliberal” society has become, and its adherents somehow always manage to mention Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as a kind of transcendental prime mover, explaining how the world took a wrong turn based on corporate lies and blinding neoliberal ideology. The Right, and by that I mean the socially conservative elements of society, is equally thrilled to be appalled by what appears to be an endless onslaught of political correctness, relativism, multiculturalism, and the excessive softness of the nanny welfare state. As I mentioned, the neo-fascists like to call it the victory of “cultural Marxism”. What we are hearing are scattered remnants of the voices of the alternatives to Green Social Liberalism that existed under industrial modernity.
But that age has quickly passed. We are approaching a new landscape. I am not talking about what Zygmunt Bauman calls “postmodernity” or “liquid modernity” or what Anthony Giddens calls “late modernity”. What I mean is that we have passed into a postindustrial and digitalized age where new political rules apply – and where metamodern politics becomes increasingly viable.
There is no “center” in any strict, analytical sense. What we have is one victorious meta-ideology, one recipe for society that has beaten its competitors when it comes to functionality and rhetorical edge. It is this meta-ideology that is disguised as a “center”, as being the sensible, moderate form of politics. The “middle” is a position that under other circumstances would have appeared as extreme. Indeed, Sweden is an extremely modern, liberal country, stabilizing approximately around this equilibrium:
- An uncompromising acceptance of the market economy.
- An equally uncompromising acceptance of the welfare state.
- A gradual adaptation to the pressures of economic globalization, with a focus on economic growth, liberal markets and international competitiveness.
- An approximate 50-50% mixture of public bureaucracy and private enterprise, usually with a slight tilt towards private (Sweden, for instance, collected 50.4% of GDP in taxes at its peak in 1999, which had gone down to 43.0% by 2015).
- An uncompromising acceptance of basic liberal values.
- A rhetorical minimum of ecological awareness.
Anybody who strays from this path commits political heresy. All values, from radical feminism and veganism to anti-surveillance and anti-immigration nationalism, are justified with at least some reference to this same meta-ideology. This meta-ideology is dominant simply because it is superior to its alternatives under the current economic, technological, socio-psychological and historical circumstances. That doesn’t give Green Social Liberalism any transcendental value or divine justification. It just happens to have a competitive edge under the current circumstances.
Readers will no doubt note that one can see similar tendencies in many Western countries. The point here is that these tendencies are more pronounced and have progressed farther in the Nordic countries, which is why we are studying them specifically – they may, to some extent, portend the political development in a more international, even global, context.
In the Nordic countries of today there is no real public discourse about where society is headed, no real tug-of-war pulling in different directions. There are just superficially different varieties of Green Social Liberalism. If we zoom in a little on what may be causing this ideological (but not economic or cultural) stand-still, the list looks something like this:
- The industrial society we knew has been suspended in favor of a postindustrial, digitalized service economy. Thereby the parties no longer represent real economic classes (peasants, workers and bourgeoisie) that people feel they belong to in their everyday lives.
- Individual people have increasingly complex identities, interests and ideologies (mixing, for instance, feminism with Christianity and online privacy concerns or whatnot), making them harder to represent in coherent political parties.
- Politics deals with more and more complex financial, legal, social, political, technological and ecological realities – thereby landing more power in the hands of non-elected bureaucrats and experts and making public discourse more difficult and filled with distorting simplifications.
- The increasingly mixed class and social interests make it difficult to form monolithic structures to organize and represent voter interests. For the individual person, this also makes it harder to “join” any one movement without contradicting some of one’s own central values.
- If a country goes farther left it loses in the face of international competition for capital; if it goes farther towards liberalization, it suffers social paralysis and protests; if it retracts civil liberties (gay marriage, etc.) it loses valuable economic agents; if one ignores the environment or the plight of foreigners one loses the rhetorical battles for moral high-ground.
The party system we know, with a Left and a Right, is a product of the classes of an industrial society, where a majority of everyday activity was based around partaking in the production and distribution of industrial goods. The same can be said about the electoral system itself; it is constructed to house class-based parties.
In the postindustrial, digitalized and globalized economy, where the most revenue is cycled through rather abstract services, we no longer have the same class division; we no longer have the same social strata that the parties were designed to represent. Social mobility is relatively high in the Nordic countries, which also means that within one family, you can have one unemployed blue-collar person, one with depression and on sick-leave, one with a fancy international job with high salary – and a school teacher. The divisions become much more multilayered and complex.
In the parts of the world where this postindustrial economy has manifested most clearly, postindustrial politics follows like a shadow: liberal values together with a balance struck between free enterprise and social welfare – and sustainability. In the Nordic countries, the clout and seriousness of every political movement is measured by its dedication to the dominant meta-ideology of Green Social Liberalism. The question is no longer which society we want – one vision has won by walk-over, and it allows no alternatives – but rather, who will be most proficient at getting us there. Who is the best janitor?
”If the ideologies and utopias of modern times are increasingly revealing themselves as bankrupted, how about taking a sober look at the new political landscape, and from there develop a new ideology based on the already dominant Green Social Liberalism?”
The End of Ideological Struggle?
What should we make of this? Is all ideological struggle over? Are we, in effect, replacing one janitor-of-a-prime-minister with another? Let’s take stock of some implications.
First of all, don’t be fooled by the fireworks, the displays of rhetorical and practical disputes of the politicians, who have every interest in maintaining the image of deep divisions and conflicts, an interest shared by the media who work hard to create drama concerning relatively small differences.
And secondly, admit defeat. Socialism (or anarchism) is not going to happen. And there is no national resurgence of organic community coming our way. There will be no night-watchman state and libertarian utopia where the public sector is all but removed. There will be no ecological-spiritual awakening spontaneously growing from the goodness of your heart. And no, Mr. Conservative, there will be no rolling back of gay rights, bike paths, vegan diets, animal rights and queer perspectives – they are all here to stay and expand.
You can give up on all of that nonsense. Those were whispers of another time. Let them die hard. Clear your head of these hallucinatory fantasies. They are about as meaningful today as belief in ghosts or Jesus walking across King Herod’s swimming pool.
And third, you can take the bull by its horns and tame it. If the ideologies and utopias of modern times are increasingly revealing themselves as bankrupted, how about taking a sober look at the new political landscape, and from there develop a new ideology based on the already dominant Green Social Liberalism? Can you take the full consequences of it – and raise it to a new and higher level?
See the “center” for what it is – the total victory of one ideology over all alternatives. And then use it. Break its limits.
”Liberal representative democracy, because it is approaching its own ideals, has slowly begun to render itself obsolete.”
The Voter’s Raw New Deal
Another way to look at the issue is from the perspective of the individual voter and her interaction with the political system. She is faced with a situation in which party politics gradually loses much of its meaning and lure. Because the political spectrum is really a showcase for more or less of the same content, party politics becomes predictable and irrelevant.
Three perceptions of the political realm become deeply ingrained. First, that politics is boring. Secondly, that it is difficult, requiring expert knowledge of e.g. sustainability, energy or finance. And third, that our efforts won’t make any difference either way. Membership of political parties drops, and has kept decreasing for decades in a very stubborn trend. Everybody claims to be “above” such petty things as party politics.
None of this should be surprising, given that one and the same political meta-ideology overshadows the bickering of day-to-day politics. The Nordic countries have proportional parliamentary systems, which favors the formation of six to ten parties, rather than two major ones. If the voter takes an online test before the elections (for party sympathies), she often finds only a small difference between her degree of agreement with the number one party and the number two on her list. Let’s say the gap is five percent. Can you expect her to tie her personal identity to that party, to make it her own project, to stand up for and support it, to hand out stickers and wave flags in its name – only for those meager five percent? Truth be told, it’s a raw deal. Party politics is just not the place to be anymore. The voter will likely be able to better defend her interests and find a positive, coherent civic identity elsewhere.
Whereas the politicians and the media try to inflate the political debate, focusing on differences and distinctions – as well as increasingly focusing on matters of competence, respectability and scandals (where smaller and more trivial matters begin to count as shockingly scandalous) – the electorate and media consumers grow tired of charades and petty squabbling.
There is an increasing popular demand for things such as “straight talk”, not to score cheap points, not to raise your voice, not to be impolite, sticking to the argument, and bringing up relevant information. Because the electorate senses that there is no real debate and no real class struggle going on, they begin to demand a more deliberative form of politics (deliberative democracy is when people talk to one another and reason their way to a common ground based on mutual respect and understanding). The voter expects her representative politicians to listen more carefully, to co-develop political solutions by taking on multiple perspectives. Nothing is more common in Denmark or Sweden than the complaint that politicians bicker too much and too artificially about too superficial things.
The politicians and the media have not been late to catch the trend. Politicians are hurrying to recast themselves as the responsible, holistic ones, becoming increasingly reluctant to cast the first stone, portraying themselves as less ideologically blinded than their competitors. The media, for their part, increasingly try to present their TV-shows, webpages and newspapers as the ones that “take a higher perspective”, to be the platform where “real deliberation” occurs.
Whereas Nordic politics has largely been based around consensus during the 20th century (primarily between organized labor and capital and their respective political representations), it is now taking another step in this direction. The individual cannot know his or her interest in advance. Political interests are becoming vaguer and more complex – and thereby more closely related to one another in unexpected ways. The ambiguity of life and our positions in society makes it all but impossible to form stable interest-based parties. Am I a consumer, a student, a worker, a woman or perhaps an entrepreneur, or will I soon be on sick-leave, or will someone in my family be? Am I threatened by economic crisis, immigration or ecological collapse?
Nordic politics is crystallizing around what we may call “the Nordic ideology” – a concept I’ll explore and deepen in my book by the same title. In this ideology people increasingly value co-development: the ability to, together with others, responsibly explore the new landscapes of risks and possibilities that are opening up. Everybody knows the politicians cannot deliver full-blown libertarianism or socialism. So at least let’s hear them speak honestly, and let them listen to one another, and listen to me, the voter.
Nordic politics has moved from consensus (and compromise between the Left and the Right), to a politics of co-development. It’s a major shifting of gears that breaks the trend of the representative class system based on debate and “winning the argument”. This trend is accelerating and gaining strength as we speak.
What we begin to see is a strange paradox. Liberal representative democracy, because it is approaching its own ideals, has slowly begun to render itself obsolete. It is precisely because liberal democracy has progressed (creating one relatively unified public with no clear distinction between an educated middle class and an industrial working class, in an affluent postindustrial, meritocratic service economy) that it is parting ways with its own fundamental principles. No longer is there any real choice between the different parties, between the Left and the Right. Representation is becoming weaker and the need for deliberation (rational, careful debate aiming for consensus) is becoming stronger. The different parties and their ideologies are all shifting positions, trying to find themselves, trying to find visions and goals to latch on to, copying them from one another. In the process, they come closer and closer to each other, which in turn makes mean accusations and arguments seem sillier than ever in the eyes of the voter.
Crammed up in the same political corner of Green Social Liberalism, politicians of all parties start trying to distinguish themselves by being good co-developers – all serving the emergence of the Nordic ideology.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’, and the upcoming books ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.