Finland and the Politics of Crises

2. Case Study: Kemijärvi – A Town in Crisis?

The empirical part of our team’s research took place in Kemijärvi, a town of about 8.000 inhabitants in Eastern Lapland, close to the Russian border. From what Kemijärvi has experienced during the last ten years, it is easy to name it a ‘town in crisis.’ During the last decade the town has gone through an extreme structural change in terms of economy and demography. This summer the town was warned that if the key figures of the municipal economy do not improve soon, the town will be given the official status of a ‘crisis town.’[5] The naming and shaming that has become a widespread practice in the EU also takes place nationally. Referring to what Michael Hardt said in his lecture, and as mentioned earlier, we could describe the subjectivity produced by the crisis most present in Finland as the ‘responsibilised’ subject. For example, the Finnish PM Jyrki Katainen repeatedly emphasised how, in a crisis, it is most important to stay responsible in action and be able to make tough decisions.

We conducted a small research on Kemijärvi in June and July 2013 to find out whether the town was indeed is in crisis and if so, in what kind of crisis. We also wanted to know if the town and its people have shown persistence in the face of hardships. First, we got a local view from outside: a questionnaire was handed out to students who stem from Kemijärvi but do not live there anymore. Second, two interviews were conducted with local residents of Kemijärvi. Other methods included the observation of the town’s public life, and the analysis of local as well as regional newspaper articles.

The results from the questionnaire and the interviews are clear: Kemijärvi is in crisis, firstly in an economic, secondly in a demographic sense. The town’s industrial performance has terminated after comparatively big factories—Orion (pharmaceutics) in 2002, Salcomp (chargers for mobile phones) in 2004, and Stora Enso (pulp factory) in 2008—have closed down, leaving hundreds of people unemployed. Due to structural change in the job market and a gendered labour policy,[6] many were not in a position to re-employ themselves. This caused an accelerated migration to other parts of Finland; the loss of inhabitants weakened the town’s tax base, forced small firms to close down and affected the general atmosphere. Social problems culminated in harsh conditions.

On the other hand, and surprisingly so, the town showed a high degree of public and social activities during our research period.[7] On this level, there seemed to be no sign of crisis. The driving force behind these efforts to render Kemijärvi as a ‘town of events’[8] appear to be the entrepreneurial interests of the locals. As mentioned in the discussion after our presentation, people in Kemijärvi seem to be conditioned to affirming the town’s ‘eventist identity’, much like the Sami people who are made to live out their culture through tourism. Everything else is, or appears to be economically impossible.

Regarding the question of persistence in response to the crisis, the respondents’ and interviewees’ answers were unanimous: resistance and persistence are displayed in a number of initiatives, be it in the fight for maintaining the night train connection, or by initiating a TV series filmed in Kemijärvi. The initiative for the preservation of pulp production facilities in Kemijärvi received a lot of support and massive media attention on a national level. Despite the sense of legitimacy thus created, in the end, the Pulp movement failed to achieve its goals. Apparently, the persistence alone will not solve the problems of Kemijärvi. More material welfare is needed.

One could draw parallels and ask whether the Pulp movement faced similar problems as the 15M movement which, as the Spanish group reported, failed to channel its potential into concrete political changes despite broad support from the population. Popularity and a lack of antagonism can be disadvantageous for a movement. On the other hand, when the Pulp movement tried to be radical and antagonistic, e.g. by suggesting to occupy the factory, it met moralist disapproval. A mechanism that, according to Isabel Lorey, can be observed regularly in Southern European countries where protesters are being accused of irresponsibility by not cooperating with the government.

Another aspect relates to geography. As Sandro Mezzadra pointed out in his lecture, the current crises have shifted geographies and reversed the centre-periphery settings. While from a European perspective Kemijärvi is a remote spot at the north-eastern periphery, from the local perspective the point of reference is not necessarily Europe, but North Calotte or the Barents region. In this arrangement, Kemijärvi is one of the few cities with access to the growing tourism potential of North-West Russia.

So, is there a connection between the experienced crisis in Kemijärvi and the European crisis? Our respondents and interviewees could not find any specific effects apart from the generally negative economic situation. While Kemijärvi is being seen as a victim of ‘outside’ capitalist forces (closure and relocation of factories to low-cost countries), the European states affected by the crisis – from a Finnish perspective – tend to be held responsible for their own problems. But the tone is changing in Kemijärvi: While in the beginning the official status of an ‘area in a sudden structural change’ granted by the Finnish state came along with subsidies and public interest, Kemijärvi is now becoming frequently portrayed as a town that simply was not persistent enough.

To sum up: despite the fact that Finland is generally presented as a model country of the Eurozone, it has not remained untouched by the European crisis. As the Swiss group showed in their presentation, the representation of a country as safe harbour amidst the wild sea of the crisis is misguided and misguiding in face of highly interconnected economies. Yet, what is seen as a crisis in Kemijärvi seems to be more connected to the long-term transformations induced by neoliberal policies than to the immediate symptoms of the crisis. In this context, it is important to note that one core principle of the Finnish welfare state, namely that of equal regional development—in other words: keeping the whole country inhabited—has been abandoned, a sign of which is the plan to radically reduce the number of municipalities. Gradually Finland has joined other European countries on the path to the dismantling of the welfare state. Thus it is important to again raise a question asked during the Summer School: are the various emerging social movements across Europe demanding a ‘strong state’—or are we experiencing a popular mobilisation, the aim of which is to radically change politics altogether?


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