The dust is now beginning to settle following the Norwegian national election. It is over a week since Norway voted out Jens and his red-green, social democratic government, doubling down instead on the conservative blue parties. For people who have been in a coma, this unholy blue alliance of Good Bear Erna and Bad Bear Siv has caused quite a kafuffle in the media.
Much to Norway’s collective chagrin, the international press went berserk. National catastrophes and national election catastrophes are pretty much the only time Norway shows up on the international radar. Turning to the near empty room in their collective imagination labelled “Norway”, the international press googled FrP and Breivik and rustled up nonsense like this by the Guardian: “The anti-immigration party’s electoral success shows the country has not dealt with the roots of Anders Breivik’s crimes”. Meanwhile the more monetary-minded dwell on the apparent oddity of Norway voting out a government that steered them through international financial crisis with barely a blip in growth. “Given that,” The Economist argued, “Mr. Stoltenberg’s looming defeat suggests ingratitude”.
Back in Norway, where the election result was not much of a surprise, Norway’s best political minds have been busying themselves on the big question “What the f*** was Siv-bear wearing on election night?” When pressed, wise old commentators sagely pointed to boring things like historical precedent and mumbled about voter fatigue. Some of the highbrow left blame the linguistic sleight of hand of the Good Bear’s team. One gets the impression however, that many believe that this is just a natural, temporary switch in government, and normal social democratic service will be resumed at the first opportunity.
The Guardian’s judgement is obvious codswallop, but it also seems that Norwegian explanations, perhaps wilfully, miss the broader more alarming pattern.
Racism Red Herring
First of all though, the Guardian’s argument deserves to be mocked. To start, Breivik left FrP ages ago complaining it was not radical enough. Moreover, if we judged collectives by their most extreme individual members, then the Republican Party in the U.S. has thousands of “links” to extremists of every stripe. But even if you accept the dim-witted simplistic premise that the FrP are a one policy “anti-immigration” party, their percentage of the vote has almost halved since the last election (as many have pointed out). Therefore, if one assumes that FrP’s voters are a homogenous gang of extremist racist right wingers, as the Guardian implies when it links FrP to Breivik, then such a vast drop in 4 years suggests that Norway is doing a pretty good job of dealing with “the root causes of Breivik”.
But, the whole premise the Guardian’s argument is flawed. FrP are much more than an anti-immigration party, they have a broad populist platform that promises low taxes, cheap booze, more roads, more money for the police, “freedom of choice” (read privatisation) as well as anti- immigration policies. The most we can say is that their anti-immigration policies did not put off 16% of Norway from voting for them.
Bears will be bears
Bringing Good Bear’s rise back into the equation, the picture looks a lot clearer. Erna and Siv are just two bears with the same intention. They want to get their hand in the honey jar: Norway’s taxed income, Norway’s state ran services, Norway’s social transfers, Norway’s oil fund — everything that will make individuals richer in the short term and society poorer in the long term. I was going to use “cop” instead of “bear” but the goal of cops is to protect whereas Good Bear and Bad Bear have no such honourable intentions. Bad Bear Siv does not screw around with niceties, she tells everyone what she wants – the honey goddammit – and she doesn’t want to share it with anyone else, least of all foreigners. Good Bear Erna is more diplomatic, but she doesn’t want the honey any less. However, she prefers to tell people it’s for society’s good that the honey is taken.
This is potentially where the leftist critique that Good Bear has conned Norway with its friendly right wing euphemisms and vague language might seem appealing. The trouble with this line of argument is that it insults Norwegians intelligence. Everyone knows that if you reduce inheritance tax, the wealth tax and privatise schools that it will increase inequality, reduce social mobility and in general calcify privilege in society. For example, the results of the “Swedish Model” were broadcast on NRK before the debate on education. It demonstrated that introducing Free Schools (or whatever the euphemism) has resulted in rapid broadening in the gap between the best and the worst schools, leaving those with money the chance to segregate their kids from the poor. Equally, horror stories come thick and fast from the Swedish experiment with putting government services out for government tender, in nursing homes and day care. If you turn to the UK similar disasters with public tender contracts are everywhere: quasi competition in state paid for services leads to a race to the bottom where both services and the staff employed suffer. Norwegians in general are aware of this, and no amount bullshitting about “freedom of choice” can hide it. The trouble is not that Høyre and FrP voters have been misled; it is that they do not care.
The Meanwards Shift
Now, take a closer look at the numbers and the election result is not “a lurch to the right”, it is not “voter fatigue”, and it is not due to Good Bear’s soothing rhetorical tricks. It is the culmination of a long term trend towards individualism. Although the swings between Høyre and FrP hide it, if you aggregate the percentage of the electorate who voted for economically right parties (Good Bear and Bad Bear’s parties respectively) it shows a clear long term steady rise (See graph). The main loser in this shift has not been Arbeiderpartiet, but the Socialist Left. If it was a question of voter fatigue, voters would be moving away from the leading party in the coalition. Instead they managed to cling on to their voters, but only by adopting a number of the privatisation and anti-immigrant polices of the right.
Looking at the bigger picture, the election result is the democratic will of the now nearing majority of Norwegians who have finally fallen prey, perhaps inevitably, to the corrosive influence of their growing wealth and the sense of entitlement it brings. Given the median income is about 39,000 NOK per month, a growing number of Norwegians probably presume they are rich enough now to offset the individual costs of inequality in society and still be better off. The result is a very modern morally vacuous nihilism that seeks to preserve their privilege by kicking away the foundation that made it possible. The policies of Good Bear and Bad Bear phrase it differently but their policies have something in common: they allow the individual to opt out, or share less with society. Tax breaks, roads, free schools, getting tough on immigration, cutting social welfare, privatisation are all sides of the same coin: policies appealing to meanness. This turn is sad, probably damaging for society, but not strange.
No longer Anderledeslandet
Rather, it is remarkable that it has taken so long: the richer people get the more they resent tax and the less they appreciate government. Norway deserves credit that the swing to the right didn’t happen earlier. The rest of Europe has long been far to the right of Norway. In a wider international context, voting in the blue bears therefore cannot be seen as a “lurch to the right” but rather a regression to the mean of the rest (mathematically and figuratively). But while the rest of Europe generally moved rightwards in times of recession, Norway’s social democracy is a victim of its own economic success. In the last 30 years Norway has moved to top in the UN development index and its GDP – the 2nd highest in the world per capita – is shared around more equally than almost any country. Thus the 43% of Norwegians voting for FrP and Høyre have effectively said “Thanks for the good work government; I have enough money to take this from here”. This is the collective decision for Norwegians to chase their own hares, while society forgets that hunting the stag together was once possible.
The sad thing is that damage to social cohesion that will result, will only be fully felt once it is too late to reverse. Inequality is correlated with almost every social problem from violent crime to teenage pregnancy, from drugs to mental illness. Unfortunately inequality is also extremely difficult to address once institutionalised. Instead, the only policy choices available once the rot has set in will be expensive and futile measures to deal with the symptoms: tougher and tougher policing and sentencing. Indeed, Bad Bear, perhaps seeing into the future, campaigned on more police and longer sentences.
The beginning of the era of mean
The future looks, if anything, even gloomier. The scariest moment in the election was not September the 9th but the School election the week before. The images that accompanied the results of the school election were harrowing: Høyre’s cheering supporters looked like a gang of Goldman Sachs interns. The young are supposed to want to save the world; instead, Norway’s 21st century youth care about lowering taxes. One has to ask, if you are passionate about conservative economics when you are 17, where will you be in your mid-life crisis?
Ultimately then, Norway’s Election result does not look to me like a blip or a lurch, but a long delayed changing of guards: the end of social democratic principles and the beginning of a new era of meanness. I just hope I am wrong.