Finland has, for the third year in a row, been declared the happiest country in the world in the “World Happiness Report.” Strong unions and a strong welfare state contribute to this ranking, but these are under threat. Meanwhile, much of the harsher reality of the country is obscured by confused, half-baked media reports that treat the Nordic countries as utopias. Ultimately, for-profit reports such as these are no real indicator of the well-being of a country’s workers.
Finland has thanks to early intervention and a good public healthcare system weathered the COVID-19 crisis relatively well. Thanks to union-won guaranteed sick pay, workers have been willing to get tested. Meanwhile, the public health system has not yet been slashed by privatization. In fact, Finland has offered its excess ICU capacity to Sweden, where, because of a lax and anti-scientific approach to COVID, the pandemic is ten times worse.
This all couples with a generally robust state unemployment insurance system, and easy access to housing benefits. The economic contraction of 2019 and 2020 has, for the time being, not led to the threat of mass homelessness in Finland, as it has in the United States. The country also benefits from a relatively low level of wealth inequality. Like Sweden, Norway and Denmark, which also came near the top of the World Happiness Report’s list, Finland is in the bottom ten for wealth inequality among OECD states. In other words, access to one of the highest standards of living in the world is much more evenly distributed than in the US or UK.
Yet all these benefits, despite their positive impact on the lives of working-class Finns, are seen by Finland’s wealthy as temporary concessions to be undermined at the first opportunity. Finland’s main political parties serve this bourgeoisie, with only the potential power of the organized working class holding a massive assault on these reforms in check.
This potential power does not flow from the tops of the unions. Those union leaders have been complicit during the outbreak in enabling mass layoffs in both state-owned and private companies under the guise of “partnership.” Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost, with COVID being used as an excuse–in other words, the burden of paying for weathering the economic crisis is handed from Finland’s companies to the workers.
That this was carried out by a self-proclaimed left-wing government is enraging and disillusioning Finnish workers. That same government, led by Sanna Marin’s Social Democratic Party, has just passed a budget that cuts back pensions for older workers who get laid off. There is no excuse for such an attack under any circumstances, but, at the same time, the government went ahead with a multi-billion-dollar purchase of new jet fighters. Indeed, during the budget negotiations, each of the five government parties stated their loyalty to this handout to McDonnell-Douglas; the negotiations themselves were a process of discussion over which social programme to attack.
The other side of the coin
In the absence of a mass socialist opposition, the potential for a disaster is real. While service economy-led Helsinki may be the happiest city in the world, according to the World Happiness Report, long-term unemployment and poverty are decades-old plagues outside the capital area. And racism and hostility to immigrants have risen in the wake of the government’s failure to tackle the problem.
As the CWI has consistently warned for years, the far-right continues to rise in the polls. If an election were to be held today, there is a strong chance that Jussi Halla-Aho, an openly anti-Somali politician with strong ties to both historical and modern Finnish fascism, would become the Prime Minister.
His consolidation of position is no surprise. In regions like Karelia, Kainuu, and Lapland, the long-term lack of jobs has led to mass exoduses of youth to the south, leaving behind small towns with decaying infrastructure and rampant alcoholism. Industrial towns in the Finnish hinterland were once strongholds for the left. But as the Social Democrats and Left Alliance have watered down their programmes more and more – distancing themselves further and further from the needs of these communities – irrational anger, even violence toward immigrants has taken root. Polling finds Finland to be one of the most racist countries in Europe.
This racism has also led to a pernicious myth about Finland. Finland has not eliminated homelessness. Thousands are homeless in Helsinki and a large portion of these are migrants, afraid or unable to access state support. A 2018 Katto-project report found immigrants were seven times more likely to be homeless than non-immigrants and identified discrimination as the major factor. This is “elimination” on capitalist terms: to shift the problem onto people who are invisible.
And this kind of blindness is at the heart of the World Happiness Report. How could anyone truly measure the happiness of a country? The answer is simple: the WHR polls people on how they view their own lives compared to the best lives they can imagine potentially happening. In other words, their data collection examines the gap between people’s circumstances and their aspirations, making no allowance for what creates those aspirations.
Finland scores well in the World Happiness Report because most people have stable homes and incomes. But stable homes and guaranteed incomes are the absolute minimum of what the state should provide for workers. In a socialist society, housing for all, productive and fulfilling work for all, education and health care, for all, would be guaranteed as a matter of course. When these basic needs, the potential of which to provide already exists in the world, are no longer threatened by the greed of bosses, it will unlock a new era for real human ‘happiness’. Socialism will be the first time in the history of humanity when all people will be able to pursue their passions and hopes to the fullest. Socialism is the liberation of the human body, the human mind, and the human spirit.