Who sets the agenda?

Editorial by Henrik Stenius

heku.jpg (3532 bytes)You are what you eat, you are what you wear and you are what daily paper(s) you read. This last maxim served as a point of departure for the seminar on Public Opinion in Different National Settings held at the Institute last autumn (see centre spread). Regardless of your status as a member of the thinking public, you can never claim to be an altogether sovereign mind. Pure thinking does not exist. You are always playing a part in specific language games that give you your social and political language, the concepts you use when organising surrounding society and forming opinions about it. Concepts are liable to change, and are always subject to competing interpretations. But the mind can find no refuge from such vigorous debate.

One way to expand and intensify the independence of the individual mind is to study how and why concepts are used in specific ways in specific cultures. You do this by drawing comparisons. What kinds of people in different societies have the power to influence political and social agendas? What is regarded as crucial expertise in different societies? What are the differences in the interpretation of key concepts that can teach us to understand how value systems of national cultures diverge?

There are many similarities between Finland and Britain with respect to the rules of media language. To concentrate on comparisons between Finland and England (Scotland has an autonomous public media sphere with its own logic and so will be omitted from this short comparative exercise), these two countries seem to contrast sharply with each other in some important aspects.

It is not a disadvantage for a politician in Finland to have an academic background. Neither is it a coincidence that for most of its existence, the Republic of Finland has been ruled by a president with a doctorate. Finland is an example of a country where academics have had a major impact on the political agenda. When, a couple of years ago, the social scientists Jeja-Pekka Roos and Keijo Rahkonen studied how Finns ranked their intellectuals, they found that more than half those voted into the top thirty had written a doctoral thesis.

In England, the important intellectual players are, I think, to a much greater degree journalists like Andrew Marr and Will Hutton. Without doubt, newspapers are equally important in Finland and are read as much as in this country - as a matter of fact even more than in Britain - but a distinguished Finnish journalist does not enjoy such a highly regarded position as his colleagues in England. However, things are changing in the sense that outside contributors have less column inches at their disposal today than some ten years ago.

There is a more profound divergence in political debate between England and Finland. England is the ultimate case - together with Sweden – of a country where social and political expertise has to be underpinned by a solid grasp of economics. Those who argue in economic terms are the heavies. Finland is at the opposite end of the spectrum: social and political experts do not need to prove that they understand economics. The contribution of economists to public debate in Finland during this century has been minimal. The framework of public debate has been constructed by sociologists (Erik Allardt and the leading Marxists in the sixties were sociologists), historians (Matti Klinge, Heikki Ylikangas), novelists (Väinö Linna, Paavo Haavikko) and philosophers (Georg Henrik von Wright). The women? There are many important female commentators on many sections of society including academia, arts, politics and business. But, obviously, there are gender structures according to which women do not aspire to the kind of patriarchal positions that the male oldies possess.

Bernard Crick, who was the keynote speaker in the seminar mentioned above, confirms this English peculiarity in an article in The Guardian (20 March 1997): "The social sciences have found out a lot and have much to say. Only economists, however, seem to be taken seriously outside academia". Similar historical experiences in England and Sweden, shared by no other country, at least partly explain the phenomenon: the history of the two nations is characterised by continuity. The legitimacy of centralised power in England and Sweden is strong; the countries have never been occupied by foreign powers (the Finnish part of Sweden was occupied by Russia in 1809); and, lastly, neither country has had experience of a constituent parliamentary assembly. As a consequence, social and political movements during the last centuries had only limited ambitions to threaten the central institutions. Their members did not believe that there was any real possibility of having an impact on things that seemed almost divinely ordained, or at least part of a natural, time-honoured order: in short, because the institutions were legendary they seemed inaccessible.

What has this to do with the hegemony of economics? Not very much directly. But I think there is a causal link between inaccessible power structures in the in the centre of the nation and awruneberg.jpg (15572 bytes) preoccupation with practices that do not raise questions about the foundations of these structures. The answer is, in other words, that it has to do with piecemeal social engineering, to use an expression invented by an Austrian immigrant. Plain English has been ennobled to help this special kind of social engineering.

The Finns have had other types of questions on their agenda, and have consequently used other types of concepts and language. For instance, they have discussed constitutional matters on an academic level in a way unknown to academics at least in Sweden, perhaps also in England. They have explored the question of historical destiny. In a country like England this sort of question has been assigned to the sphere of metaphysics; "darüber muss man schweigen", to use an expression coined by another Austrian immigrant.

Henrik Stenius

The Picture: Walter Runeberg's statue "The Arts and Science", 1893, is part of the monument of the Russian Tsar Alexander II in the middle of the Senate Square in Helsinki. The two figures representing artists and scholars of the nation face the former House of the Senate. Behind them is what used to be called the Imperial Alexander University, now the University of Helsinki. The square is the most important public space in Finland in terms of expressing political positions.                      

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