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Campaigning for Participatory Economics in Finland: An Update


Parecon Finland is an organization working in Finland that is part of a wider project for a more free, just and participatory society [1]. In this text we provide first an overall view of the situation in Finland, followed by a summary of our activities over the last months and some explanation behind our thinking and the choices we've made.

Finland: Achievements in equality, disrupted and destroyed at an unprecented pace

The northernmost EU country, Finland, and its neighboring Nordic-countries are often referred to as the pinnacle of social democratic achievements – the combination of market-based economy and ambitious state-directed wealth redistribution, put into place since the second world war after growing demands from people's movements, supported by the social democratic parties.
 
This reference is unfortunately often made without knowledge as to what the situation is actually like, for example, in Finland right now. The high level of equality and the more just wealth redistribution may have been closer to reality at some point, but the situation is far from that in 2011.[2] Once flourishing public services are now in a state of dysfunction, and their financing is troubled. Although Finnish youth rank among the top in civic knowledge surveys, according to these studies interest in social justice oriented, societal work is extremely low. [3] Meanwhile, the gap between the rich and the poor is growing faster than in any other OECD country, with wide unemployment having lasted now for decades.[4]
 
The effects of this are known and felt in everyday life in Finland. The situation of the poor in Finland, who are seriously disenfranchised from the society, is seemingly of little concern in wider public discussion. Racism is growing in popularity, and the newest data is showing that for example young people have suffered seriously from the effects of economic inequality, speeded unprecentedly by the neoliberal policies that have disrupted or collapsed the previous achievements in presenting more equal access to basic services such as health care or housing.[5]

Parecon Finland: Focused on bringing the example of participatory economics to wider public awareness in Finland
 
Parecon Finland has been working since last year to gather material and analysis in order to present serious alternatives to the current situation. We believe that participatory economics, and the underlying vision of a participatory society, can create new openings in the public discussion, by introducing the ideas of participatory workplace and democratic planning here, as well as offering a very detailed, authoritative critique of the capitalist market economy.

We spent the fall of 2010 gathering comments and analysis from various organizations and people in Finland in order to assess some aspects of the vision of participatory economy and how it would be received here. We were happy to receive serious commentary and help in this phase, and it helped us refine some aspects we wished to focus on in our activity. These included the ideas of balanced job complexes, questions of how money is handled in a participatory economy, and the system of different councils to support and gather people as they make decisions together.

We also received criticism of the participatory economics model, which focused on philosophical and historical aspects of it – instead of commenting on the specifics of the model. Some critics argued that because participatory economics is philosophically clearly based on anarchism, it should be stated more explicitly, and some pointed out that the criticism of marxism wasn't developed thoroughly enough, especially in the materials we presented. Another major criticism involved feasability, critics questioning the attainability and "realism" of such, or possibly any, developed model that tries to seriously abolish markets to answer their inadequencies and destructiveness.

This criticism helped us to focus our materials in a way that encourages people to consider and reason the structural mechanism of our current economy, by simply providing the participatory economics model as a serious alternative and a tool for comparing and contrasting the current situation with. Forceful advocation and argumentation of a rigid model would provide negative effects in any case, and would be contrary to the values of self-management and diversity we advocate. The participatory economics framework suits this approach very well, and we believe a careful, balanced approach that aims to inform and educate on the issues of economy and it's effects is well suited to current situation that desperately needs more informed discussion on the actual nature of our current economic system.
 
We also spent some time in making a good website, one that is accessible and contains basic information of all aspects of participatory economy. It also features a blog that is frequently updated with short commentary on economic news and articles from our viewpoint, emphasizing the problems and the need for action in our current society, as well as the alternative possibilities offered by participatory vision. Central aspects of this design process are detailed in a ZNet blog post by one of our members, Joona Mäkinen. [6]

The website, combined with the blog, are intended to act through a two-fold strategy: as the participatory model itself is far from widely known, we believe the first step is to provide something useful in general through our actions and keep the participatory economics model constantly visible and easily approachable so that anyone interested can find out more, either through our website or the books written about the subject.

To this effect, we've started a regularly updated (new story every working day) blog that combines current political and economic news analysis with short pointers on the problems involved as well as occasionally contrasting this with the solutions modeled in the participatory economics vision. This constant stream of news and posts helps getting people to return to the site, to check out new posts and links. It also conveys to people reading the blog that we take our work seriously, and hope to be able to help our readers analyze current discussion through the examples of holistic vision (as presented in the book "Liberating Theory") and more focusedly through the participatory economics model.

Our choice of focus in this regard comes from three major considerations: firstly, the small size of active people in our group; secondly the success in gaining at least some membership and activity within other groups, devoted to other, equally important spheres of society (such as the spheres of kinship and culture) and thinking about focusing our energies accordingly to areas with less activity around them, in this case economy; and thirdly a strategic choice of trying to focus and limit our approach in a way that allows us to choose precisely the issues and questions we wish to focus on currently, in order to limit the discussion and make it more "winnable" in smaller steps. The last strategic choice seemed important to us, as it helps us keep our position secure and focused even with the limited resources available at this very early stage. This way, we can point out some key issues and concentrate on them one at a time, with less danger of being drawn into other arguments and issues that would then drown the original debate, which we've seen happen many times. This is hard to avoid, of course, but our choices can help us manage such situations in a more prepared way.

Moving forward: Public libraries, presenting participatory economics
 
As the year was nearing its end, we were happy to negotiate successfully a tour presenting participatory economy in the public libraries of Helsinki metropolitan area. We aim to use this opportunity firstly to collect ideas and opinions for future projects of our organization, as well as to create public awareness of participatory economics and our organization. In our library presentations, which started in January, we first introduce our organization, then present some current injustices and problems in the Finnish society, followed by a more structural approach and critique of the market system. After this, we introduce the basics of participatory economic vision through its values and central institutions, and compare some defining characteristics of participatory economics to corresponding features of capitalism covered earlier in our presentation. We leave ample room for discussion in our presentations, in order to give those attending a chance to immediately appraise the ideas presented and have discussion over them, as well as giving us the chance to correct any possible major misconceptions.

We intend to keep talking in libraries and other public venues in the future, and similarly keep writing to the blog, to keep up the constant work with these as an integral backbone of our organizing. We are now in the final stages of translating an economics article by Robin Hahnel, and plan on using that as an introduction to approach other organizations and groups with, as well as to promote ideas of participatory economics. We hope to be able to tour other organizations, such as those involved in environmental and other issues, and give them some tools to better analyze economics with as well as possibly reform their own organizational structures.

The final, important part of our organizing is international co-operation. We hope to hear from others and participate in meaningful discussions for organizing around participatory principles in the future. We are already working with Parecon Sweden, a group that is working to promote participatory economics in Sweden. The nordic countries share many qualities in different spheres of society, which helps coordinate and plan activities in a way that provides a lot benefits for everyone. In a wider sense, all international cooperation is critical in campaigning for a more free society – despite struggles being different everywhere, they still share most of the crucial elements.

We would be very happy to hear from other groups, and especially receive advice on issues such as strategic campaigning for specific goals, organizing work in a very small group and also to hear specific criticisms of participatory model and helpful responses to them, in order to help us be more prepared in case we encounter these same questions here in Finland.

Some photos of our library presentations below.

Notes:

[1] ZBlogs, Antti Jauhiainen. "Parecon's First Steps in Finland". August 14, 2010.
http://zcomm.org/parecons-first-steps-in-finland-by-antti-jauhiainen

[2] YLE News. "Some 700,000 Finns Living Below Poverty Line." January 11, 2011.
http://www.yle.fi/uutiset/news/2011/01/some_700000_finns_living_below_poverty_line_2277911.html

[3] YLE News. "Finnish Pupils Top Civic Knowledge Ranking". June 29, 2011.
http://yle.fi/uutiset/news/2010/06/finnish_pupils_top_civic_knowledge_ranking_1795416.html

[4] Helsingin Sanomat. "Income Disparities Growing Faster In Finland Than in Any Other OECD Country." November 13, 2008.
http://www.hs.fi/english/article/Income+disparities+growing+faster+in+Finland+than+in+any+other+OECD+country/1135241060829

[5] Helsinki Times. "One in five Finns treated for mental health problems by age 21." January 12, 2011.
http://www.helsinkitimes.fi/htimes/domestic-news/general/13806-one-in-five-finns-treated-for-mental-health-problems-by-age-21-study-.html

[6] ZBlogs, Joona-Hermanni Mäkinen. "Designing Parecon Finland". October 18, 2010.
http://www.zcomm.org/designing-parecon-finland-by-joona-hermanni-m-kinen

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