Dec 26, 2016

The year that was 2016

In September, neo-Nazis killed a guy on the street, next to the railway station. His name was Jimi Karttunen. I walk by there every day when I go to university. There had been a neo-Nazi rally outside the station; members of the so-called Finnish resistance movement had paraded with their flags and challenged passersby. One of them talked back, and spat at the nazis' feet. They killed him. A nazi ran up and kicked him. He fell, injured himself badly, and later died. It's 2016, and nazis killed a man on the street in my hometown for disagreeing with them.

Everyone thought things like this didn't happen, couldn't happen, any more. People were genuinely shocked. A sea of candles and tributes grew around the lamp-post he fell next to. You couldn't pass the railway station without noticing them. I saw them every morning, and I couldn't not think that that could have been me. If a nazi had accosted me on the street, I'm pretty sure he wouldn't like what I think. Have we become a country where you have to ask yourself if my opinion is going to get me killed? Several people, at least, didn't want that. Over twenty thousand of us marched in Helsinki, with hundreds in other cities, demanding a stop to racism and violent neo-Nazism.

After this massive demonstration, the prime minister promised immediate action against neo-Nazi extremism. Committees were founded, reports were commissioned, statements were made. And nothing was done. Politicians wrung their hands and told us that this was all very terrible, but there wasn't really anything they could do. So they did nothing. Never mind that the so-called "resistance movement" already breaks several Finnish laws just by existing. Never mind that a far-right member of parliament proudly posed for photos with the murderer and his organization, and continues to participate in their activities. His party remains in cabinet. Politicians from every party happily sit on committees with him. On independence day, the Nazis marched through Helsinki under heavy police protection, trashed the Hietaniemi cemetery and defaced the peacekeepers' memorial.

Nobody in power gives a shit that an innocent man was murdered on the street and that the Nazis who did it hold triumphal marches in our capital. The rest of us are wondering who will be next.


As if this wasn't bad enough, midsummer also brought us Brexit. I have an unpleasantly vivid memory of the vote. Since it was midsummer, we were out in the country, being plagued by wasps. One of the fuckers stung me, having decided for reasons of its own to fly into my armpit. I remember checking Twitter before going to sleep on the night of the election, and seeing Nigel Farage concede. While I slept, as someone put it on Twitter later, Farage unconceded, reconceded and reunconceded. I remember waking up and making my way toward breakfast, wondering why on earth people on my Twitter feed were talking about Brexit as if it was happening. Eventually I figured out that it was because they'd voted Leave.

2016, however, wasn't done with us yet. Over a hideously drawn-out year that felt like a fucking decade, the American people, or at least a minority of them, saw fit to elevate Donald Trump from reality television clown to Republican presidential nominee and eventually, unthinkably, President.

A number of myths need to be dispensed with. Trump's supporters were not "working class". Like Brexit voters, they were not economically disadvantaged. Neither were they oppressed by political correctness or victimized by neoliberalism. They didn't even care about free trade. What they were for the most part was racist authoritarians. In other words, fascists. And they voted for a fascist.

During his primary and presidential campaigns, the nature of Trump's game became abundantly clear. Not content with the usual Republican dog-whistling, he consistently ran on a platform of racism and white supremacy. He boasted of sexually assaulting women. He showed no comprehension of any political issues whatsoever, but deployed lies, hate and demagoguery in spades. He is literally a Nazi rapist. All of this was enough to boost a Democrat candidate with a historically low favorable rating to one of the most popular presidential candidates in US history; despite both a massive FBI media blitz and a sustained Russian disinformation campaign against her, she won the popular vote by a considerable margin. The American people voted for Hillary Clinton to be their president. However, the electoral college, supposedly an institution designed to stop a demagogue from capturing the presidency, has now elevated the most buffoonish rabble-rouser to ever aspire to that office to it over the will of the people.

The United States of America are founded on violent white supremacy, an ideal that to this day is enforced by the police forces that so many white Americans seem to worship. Trump's fascist presidency, however, is something altogether different. As if his election wasn't shocking enough, it's also been amazing to watch the speed at which the entire American political right seems to be collapsing into full fascism. The Trump cabinet, so far, consists of generals and billionaire businessmen, resembling nothing so much as an eighties fever dream of a future corporate-fascist America brough to lurid reality television life. We may have thought cyberpunk was the future; it turns out JG Ballard was much more on the money.

Trump and Brexit have several things in common. Both the Leave camp in Britain and the Trump campaign compulsively told childishly stupid lies. They were openly contemptuous of fact-checking, indeed of journalism, and in both countries, the media accomodated them. In Trump's case it was abjectly terrifying that seemingly no matter what he said or did, the news cycle rolled on regardless, and within a week, all was forgotten. Both campaigns falsely represented themselves as the champions of the economic worries of "ordinary people", a strategy they share with our home-grown fascists. Both employed prominent racists and drew freely on racist iconography and tropes. Both were energized by the most obdurately illiterate conspiracist thinking, where people who read one "news item" of dubious providence are willing to defend it to their grave because it accords with their prejudices. It remains one of the bitterest ironies of our new facism that its proponents relentlessly preach a critical thinking that they are in fact completely incapable of. Any information that would challenge their deeply stupid convictions is simply dismissed outright as whatever the euphemism of the day happens to be for a Jewish plot. Both are strongly supported by Russian special services, who relish their chance at taking apart the Western coalition that defeated them in the Cold War.

These people cannot, in my experience, be persuaded or reasoned with. They're not interested in arguments or reason. On the contrary, they will in all seriousness present "arguments" that can be thoroughly debunked in unit minutes with a search engine. Doing this, however, will make no difference. The people who support fascism are animated by privilege and hatred, energized by their communities and empowered by the nods and winks of politicians and the spineless complacency of the media. They're directly supported by the secret police of both the United States and Russia. They will not just go away or give up. They need to be fought and defeated. They will certainly not scruple to do the same to everyone who disagrees with them. They've already started killing people.


I live in Finland. Why am I bothered if the Americans elect a fascist and Britain decides to leave the EU? Obviously both elections are going to have their impacts on the economy, for starters. The downturn or at least prolonged recession will almost certainly be real, and in the case of Trump, if he manages to pass anything even remotely like his lunatic tax plans, he's setting up the US for a huge bust in the future. None of this bodes well for the supply-side lunacy of our right wing, so it's very likely that the racist idiocy of both British and American voters will also have profound economic consequences for the rest of us.

Other consequences may end up being more serious. To the extent that Trump had any discernible foreign policy views when campaigning, they were disastrously idiotic. Trump was openly supported by the Russian government's disinformation operations, most notably by Wikileaks, and he reciprocated that support with a warm bromantic adoration of Vladimir Putin. The main animating idea of the Trump campaign, racism, also informed his foreign policy anecdotes, from the puerile fantasy of the miraculous border wall and the xenophobic diatribes against Mwxican immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, to his childishly ignorant view of world trade as a zero-sum game and the denigration of America's allies as freeloaders profiting off US naïvete. In openly embracing dictators and mocking US alliances, Trump effectively campaigned on a full-scale assault on the structures of Western collective security.

One of the best things I've read on the twin disasters of 2016 was David Runciman's essay in the London Review of Books. I quote:

That is what the vote for Trump has in common with Brexit. By choosing to quit the European Union, the majority of British voters may have looked as if they were behaving with extraordinary recklessness. But in reality their behaviour too reflected their basic trust in the political system with which they were ostensibly so disgusted, because they believed that it was still capable of protecting them from the consequences of their choice. It is sometimes said that Trump appeals to his supporters because he represents the authoritarian father figure who they want to shield them from all the bad people out there making their lives hell. That can’t be right: Trump is a child, the most childish politician I have encountered in my lifetime. The parent in this relationship is the American state itself, which allows the voters to throw a tantrum and join forces with the worst behaved kid in the class, safe in the knowledge that the grown-ups will always be there to pick up the pieces.

Looking at the profound shock that the eminently predictable results of Brexit seem to be causing in the UK, and the shape that the Trump administration seems to be taking, this really does seem to be the case. Both countries are heading into economic disaster, and we're all going to suffer for it. Similarly, it seems inconceivable that anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with foreign and security policy could possibly believe that either Brexit or Trump could in any way lead to anything good. It seems eminently believable, though, that people simply didn't understand that they'd lead to anything really bad, either.

We may be witnessing the birth of the post-Cold War international order. History obviously didn't end with the Cold War, and if the rise of fascism in the west is a harbinger of things to come, then the years between the Berlin Wall and the Trump Wall may well turn out to have been a brief interregnum before the world splits along new ideological lines. If Trump really ushers in some kind of alliance with Putin, things don't look very good for those of us who are first in line to be dealt away at a new Yalta. Worse, he may inadvertently start a major war. Trump has already demonstrated his spectacular ineptitude in starting a pointless diplomatic spat with China. The idea of an idiot like Trump - a self-proclaimed "smart person" who believes he doesn't need intelligence briefings - being called upon to exercise command of the world's most powerful armed forces in a time of crisis is terrifying. Even without going that far, there's simply no way that either Trump or Brexit can possibly make the world a more peaceful, stable or predictable place.


Meanwhile, back on the ranch, the wrecking of the Finnish economy continues. Prime minister Sipilä eventually managed to wrangle the unions into a "competitiveness agreement", in which he traded away the threat of larger pay and benefit cuts for an agreement to make each working day six minutes longer. I am not joking. Health care reform remains a complete mess. The university cuts were, of course, carried out, and this past fall has been by far the most chaotic I've ever experienced at our university. To give you an idea of what it's like: our professors were polled by the professors' union. Of the professors at our university, half were not satisfied with their possibilities for research, and 70% didn't trust university administration. According to the government broadcaster, university professors basically agree that recent changes at our universities have been decisively for the worse. What's at stake here is certainly my professional future, but also the wider societal issue of human capital. We remain committed to competing through cheap labor, and the government is working on destroying our education system to achieve it.

A particularly ugly political phenomenon that's been raising its head here has been the cult of the entrepreneur as a "value producer". This hit an absurd high note in a television shouting match on job creation, when several rich white men tried to shout down a politician by demanding to know how many companies she had founded. A more popular manifestation of this is a recurring meme where people look at the amount of income tax paid by high earners, and use this to claim that the rich are actually paying for everything in society and everyone else is just living off their work. This line was enthusiastically echoed by a racist sports personality, who was fired for homophobic tweets and later found to have actually paid no taxes whatsoever himself. So as you can see, we have our own little Donald Trumps everywhere. The idea that we have some kind of Randian hero-entrepreneurs who conjure value out of thin air in splendid isolation but are unjustly forced to share it with the ungrateful howling mob is monstrously, ludicrously idiotic, but it works as a bizarre rhetorical device to allow the very people who complain the most about taxes to use the fact that they pay them as a tool to dehumanize the majority of the population. As a potentially terrifying sign of things to come, our politicians have elected a woman to head our social security apparatus who dreams of replacing it with forced labor.

I quit blogging about all this last year, because there didn't seem to be any point. Our major media continue to toe the government line. For example, our largest daily printed outrageous lies about the number of jobs available, in a transparent effort to support the government's view that unemployment is caused by laziness and entitlement, rather than by the fact that there aren't enough jobs to go around. We have two major yellow afternoon papers; one is run by a facist sympathizer, the other demanded our universities be turned into research and development faciliies for Finnish businesses. But lest someone be concerned by actual issues like the economy, our biggest daily's weekly supplement helpfully incited a ridiculous media conflagration by completely misrepresenting new teaching guidelines on gender. Oh, and do you think there was critical discussion about racism and neo-Nazism in the wake of the murder? Of course not. A few days later, we were right back to inventing wildly overblown headlines about crazy bureaucrats banning whatever. The few times someone tries their hand at investigative journalism not convenient to the government, they get harassed and driven out of their job; our glorious leader managed to get denounced by Reporters without Borders for suppressing media coverage of his financial ties to the disaster that is the Talvivaara mine. Those stupid foreigners just don't understand his masculine Christian leadership.

So in short, everything in Finland is like it was, but worse. The overwhelming weight of the media is behind our government's right-wing fantasies of oppressive bureaucracy and the shiftless hordes of the unemployed. Any and all discussion of actually existing racism in our society has been completely stifled. Whenever a right-wing populist blurts out something exceptionally hateful, there will be a momentary kerfuffle over it, but nothing ever happens. Our most overtly racist party seem to have destroyed about half of their support through complete idiocy, but the others are more than happy to carry on their policies without them, and there's nothing any of us can do about it. Murderous neo-Nazis march on our streets, protected by the police.

Mutatis mutandis, I believe what David Runciman wrote about Trump applies completely to Finland as well. If there's one characteristic of Finnish culture that I think is ingrained and widespread enough to qualify as "national", it's an almost childlike belief in the state. Outside progressive leftist Twitter and the vanishingly minute number of liberals, notions like a critique of police violence are completely unfathomable. The police cannot be wrong. They are the nice men who protect us. The blind faith of Finns in the state lets them mount their childish tantrums against "bureauslavia", "the immigration business", "multiculturalism", "the bloated public sector" or whatever the righteous fury buzzword of the day is, sanguine in the belief that no matter how hard they try to undermine and straight up burn down the structures of the welfare state, somehow it will still be there to look after them in the end. We don't seem to understand that the institutions and well-being we take for granted were built by people, and they can be broken by people. If our current policies of privileged resentment and deliberate wrecking go on, they will be.

No wonder, then, that educated people are fleeing the country. Personally, I'd be more than happy to join them. The level of public hostility to science and education in Finland is at an amazing high, and because of the massive cuts, the situation at our universities is becoming intolerable. I find it very difficult to see any kind of academic career happening for myself here, or much of any other kind of career either. There's also next to no chance of a change, so what the future has in store is almost certainly more cuts, public mockery and outright hatred. The question isn't why we're leaving; the question is why any of us would stay.


I don't know if this is true or not, but I've come to at least entertain the hypothesis that over the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, we've become so secure in our well-being that far too many of us have genuinely forgotten what the point of politics is. It's been allowed to devolve into a completely irrational symbolic game, a culture war where people are positively encouraged to be as irrational and emotional as they possibly can, and care for nothing except their own particular shade of righteous resentment. Millions of Americans will vote for a Nazi rapist to spite whoever on earth they imagine they're spiting, completely unmindful of the fact that everything he has promised he'll do will make the lives of the people he purports to represent so much worse. Finnish right-wingers incessantly bleat about how we need to reform the corrupt and bloated state, and cheerfully support an utterly incompetent Finnish Trump who enriches his own family through corruption while entrenching the worst aspects of the agrarian-corporatist state and wrecking everything he ideologically despises. Or, worse, they vote for completely empty-headed demagogues with no discernible policies except racism. The British people have voted to destroy their economy in order to poke the elites in the eye - as if it were those elite who will suffer from, say, wrecking the NHS. Meanwhile, far too many of our purported intelligentsia disdain such ideas as actually engaging in some way with the rise of fascism and the destruction of the welfare state, but rather fulminate on how politics is all a game and surely nothing bad can possibly happen to anyone because it's all just talk.

We've forgotten that politics isn't just talk and symbols. That it isn't simply a public arena where the best performance wins, but also where decisions that genuinely affect our lives are made. Because we think it's a game and we refuse to take it seriously, actual fascism is back, and it's deliberately targeting the very institutions that have given so many of us the basic well-being that's brought us up to think that politics don't matter. The destruction that fascism and the cynical profiteers riding its coat-tails wreaks will, obviously, be blamed on the existential enemies the fascists claim to oppose. Your healthcare is being wrecked by shameless right-wing profiteering, but here are the Daily Mail and Ilta-Sanomat to tell you that it's the immigrants' fault somehow. We're making gigantic cuts to education while pouring hundreds of millions into "infrastructure projects" that are a bewildering combination of utter ineptitude and naked graft, but the reason the school system is collapsing is obviously multiculturalism and political correctness. And so on. Meanwhile, the major media outlets have either become so entranced by their own Olympian "objectivity" that they've completely lost touch with any discernible reality, or have openly sided with the fascists.

It's one of the brutal ironies of patriarchy and white supremacy that in the wake of both Brexit and Trump, major newspapers castigated "identity politics", but obviously not the childish racist resentments of the privileged, which is what got us into this whole mess in the first place.

We're going to look back on the brief interregnum following the Cold War and wonder how on earth we fucked this up so badly. It barely took us twenty years to go from the "end of history" - the final victory of liberal democracy - to the rise of 21st century fascism, complete with actual Nazis in the White House. I think we've forgotten that politics is about real things. I'm afraid we're going to be painfully reminded.


To sum up, then, 2016 was a uniquely horrible year in my lifetime. Fascism is with us again. No longer just a specter haunting Europe, it has become horrifying flesh among us. In Britain, fascism marches in the hate crimes and petty bigotry of Brexit, and the terrifying rehabilitation of Enoch Powell. In Finland, it leers in our brutally inhuman immigration policies, dreams forced labor fot the "unfit" and spills blood on our streets. A fascist dictator directs the Russian military in its slaughter of innocents in both the Ukraine and Syria. His ideological comrade is taking up residence in the White House.

The lights are going out all over the world. In the heady days around the turn of the millenium, even if we didn't believe that it was the end of history, so many of us thought that the lights of human rights, tolerance and reason would burn brightly in our lifetimes. Now they're going out; not blotted out by any external threat, but deliberately switched off by one country after another falling prey to their darkest impulses. Fifteen years ago, it would have seemed unthinkable that the US and far too many European countries would rush headlong to embrace fascism. But here we are.

What are you going to do about it?

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