The Critique of ”Finnish Exceptionalism” and the Burden of History

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Lukuaika: 5 min.

Author: Johan Ehrstedt

In many respects, Finland’s position as a Nordic welfare state is but a memory. While private charity continues to prop up the unstable walls of the ever-leaner welfare state, the cherished national self-image of Finland also begins to show more cracks than ever before. With self-image, I mean the politically useful myth of the Finnish nation-state, which has succeeded in impressing the world.

This myth has been the narrative of a kind of national innocence, grounded in the claim that the success story of Finland has not been built at the expense of others, whether these are minorities, nationalities or countries. The brutal treatment of national minorities at the hands of the nation-state has long been a topic of research, while the supposed innocence of our country compared to the rest of the world has faced justified criticism at least since the 1990s. A whole other question is also what effect all of this criticism has had on Finnish citizens in general.

History is often referred to in contemporary political struggles related to societal issues, and Finland is no exception. A common trait for most uses of history has been the way in which they frame Finnish history and society in terms of a unproblematic collective ‘us’, both in the past and in the present. Different allusions to a supposed national unity have typically been accompanied by a strong belief in and identification with the Finnish nation-state.

However, a new way to utilize history in Finland has grown stronger in recent years: the visible and unapologetic criticism of both Finnish society and culture and the demands for equal treatment made by groups that have thus far been marginalized and made invisible. These groups include the Sámi and the Roma, along with other racialized people and migrants. This new approach is evident for example in the struggle of the Sámi for their national existence, stories of anti-racist struggles in Finland, and the campaign for introducing anti-racist principles and policy decisions at Finnish universities, to name a few.

The past is not an earlier version of the present

In these struggles and campaigns I perceive a parallel use of the terms colonialism and racism: on one hand they serve as analytical descriptors for various types of oppression in our contemporary society, and on the other they are presented as ubiquitous themes in the history of Finland. This parallel use appears both in peer-reviewed works in Finnish and English and in more ‘popular’ contexts.

Although different aspects of colonialism and racism are definitely a part of Finnish history, I am skeptical towards the idea that racism and colonialism serve as explanations for the history of Finland. My skepticism is grounded in two intertwined aspects related to the conditions of historic understanding.

I argue that these attempts to use history in order to uncover and counteract modern-day racism, oppression and discrimination in Finland – while most praiseworthy in themselves – seem to be built on uncertain footing that may weaken the justified nature of their criticism of contemporary society and culture. By this I mean that the arguments that these attempts are based on adhere to an old-fashioned view of history, in which the primary purpose of history and historiography is to serve as an instrument for explaining the current status quo: “how we have come to be here”. In other words, there is an assumption of a straightforward and traceable continuity between the past and the present.

The anti-racist academic and activist Paul Gilroy, among others, has eloquently warned about the pitfalls of expecting present concepts and categories to be found in the past:

We must […] be especially careful not to project contemporary dynamics backward into circumstances with which they cannot possibly be congruent, nor should we imagine the world always to have been as starkly black and white as it sometimes looks these days.

Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture?, p. 33.

In the language of historians the type of unintentional bias that Gilroy describes is called doing history backwards. In this case, contemporary oppression and discrimination serve as the starting point for an approach within which history is seen as something that can be mapped out by simply rewinding it. This linear approach can easily result in simplified truths and caricatured depictions of the developments that have produced the world we live in and the problems we are faced with – as if the very tangible injustices that disproportionately affect certain vulnerable groups and societies today simply must have both strong and far-reaching roots in the past.

However, history is not like water in a channel built by engineers, inexorably making its way to the sea. History is more akin to the water in an unpredictable river delta: it may never even end up in the sea.

The future was as open in the past as it is in the present

The view of the past described above is further characterized by a kind of unintentional determinism. If we assume that the key to the status quo of today is a direct consequence of the march of history, then this leaves very little space for change. Consequently, the forms of asymmetrical relations of power that give rise to oppression and exploitation in our society and in the rest of the world may – however unintentionally – appear to be historically further-reaching, stronger, and more unchangeable than they actually are.

It is undeniable that the future was always open in the past, and it was beyond any power to plan or dictate it. The future was formed at the intersection of different endeavors, interests, wishes, dreams, powers, movements, groups and – last but not least – mere chance. As Michel Foucault has pointed out, our present is the unique result of struggles for power in the past; it is a state of affairs that no one could have foreseen or made detailed plans for.

Foucault further claimed that the very awareness of the fact that there is no deterministic link between the past and the present might serve to empower various societal movements and struggles striving for change and improvement in the present. These insights ought to be of interest for historians as well as for all groups in society working towards their own emancipation and that of others.

For the French philosopher Michel Foucault, history was a weapon in the struggle for the present. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Formulating and posing ‘difficult’ questions about Finnish history from the perspectives of marginalized groups in the present is a most welcome endeavour. Finnish history is ever a work in progress rather than a finished manuscript that cannot be changed. In doing so, however, one would do well to attach little analytical value to abstractions such as coloniality and modernity, which imply a lack of agency. History is always contextual, made by people in a certain time and place who fought for things that mattered to them but may seem alien to us. Appreciating the unfamiliarity of the past allows us to identify the distinguishing features of our own time, and by extension, to engage with it critically.

Johan Ehrstedt is a PhD candidate in General History at Åbo Akademi University, Turku. His research concerns famine in the modern history of South Asia and the conditions for the academic historical study of famine.