Norway’s Right Turn

December 16, 2013


On 9 September 2013, the Norwegian people gave their votes to a conservative majority, which is now forming the most right-wing government in Norway’s history. Norway, alongside the rest of Europe, is stepping to the right. But in contrast to most European countries, Norway is not in financial difficulties. On the contrary, by the standards of capital, it is performing better than ever; economic growth, increased employment, and none of the austerity other countries suffer. This seeming paradox goes to show how intimately connected the increasing free-market mindset is with a rising hostility towards those who are seen as “other” to liberal ideals. The removal of collective platforms and securities interweave with xenophobia as more people compete for ever scarcer public resources, in a discourse where human beings increasingly become categories instead of persons, consumers instead of humans, and productive or faulty on the free meat market of the modern world.

To return to context: Norway’s elections last month showed a clear conservative majority. Whilst the Conservatives in Norway can be considered more as liberals in a European context, their partners in government, the Progress Party (FrP), are renowned for their anti-immigration attitudes and climate change denialism, all founded on a political conviction that lower taxes and increased market ‘freedom’ is the way to bliss. In a world deeply entrenched in the financial crisis, and a Europe where the cuts to public spending hit the most vulnerable in society ever harder, one would think that the Norwegian people would safeguard their welfare state rather than opt for the Conservative’s slogan “new ideas, better solutions”. But whilst the Norwegian people may soon have reason to regret their decision, when the ‘freedom and flexibility’ of a liberal free-market solution leads to privatised health-care and education, and an erasure of hard-won worker’s rights, the entry of FrP into government represents a far more worrying problem.

That FrP is a party with strong anti-immigrant and populist tendencies is undeniable. Though it appears that Norwegians have forgiven and forgotten that the terror attack in 2011 had anything to do with this mindset, foreign media were quick to draw the link to Anders Behring Breivik on election night. The Independent released an article stating that the winning centre-right parties would form a coalition with what they called an “Anti-immigrant party with links to mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik”, and a total of 12 countries writing about the Norwegian elections focused on this link. Whilst it’s true that FrP did lose a significant percentage of votes when compared to the 2009 elections, they have to a large extent succeeded with sweeping Breivik under the carpet. When it became clear that the foreign media would not lose focus on this issue a press conference was hastily organised. Deputy leader Ketil Solvik-Olsen and Himanshu Gulati, leader of the party’s youth group, asked the press to consider the party’s history as a fight for lower taxes, less state intervention and to “limit immigration” rather than being anti-immigration per se. As several commentators have pointed out, this is at best obscuring the facts, at worst an outright lie. The party has fostered a long record of racist statements from their members, and the coinage of words such as “sneak-Islamisation” prove where their true convictions lie.

Despite this, it seems that Norwegians have a fear of taking right-wing extremism and extremist talk seriously. When a professor at the University of Bergen told the media that FrP MP Christian Tybring-Gjedde’s statements in public debates and in the media were those of a “xenophobe” and someone hostile to immigrants, Tybring-Gjedde claimed that he felt “bullied” and demanded that the University of Bergen obliged the professor to issue a formal apology. Both the professor and the university refused to do so, referring to the importance of political debate and academic freedom. Similarly, the current minister of development tweeted a message about FrP that caused a small panic from the Conservative leader, who subsequently reprimanded him for doing so. He, too, refused to apologise, but the tendency is clear: the new government does not want to display too clearly who this coalition contains, but it needs to be said loud and clear: FrP is a party whose members lump “immigrants” and “Muslims” into categories that threaten Norwegian society – when the real threat comes from the policies the party is about to implement.

Liberalism should take its share of the blame for this development. In the name of freedom of speech, we have opened a door for racist and xenophobic statements to enter the public sphere, and to categorise human beings as backwards, pre-historic or even worse. If someone looks like us and speaks like us, not to mention jokes like us, then they can pretty much say what they want. But if they threaten the flows of capitalism, or use their freedom of speech to perform a critique of the system, then they are in trouble. Liberal discourse is, to paraphrase a line often attributed to Zizek, where everything is said but nothing is argued. Words cease to have a consequential meaning, shrouding how ideologies lead to actions that profoundly affect the way that we live our lives. This is no less true with the liberal use of the word “freedom” as an excuse to cut welfare and public institutions that make society possible.

Even leaving the terrorist links to the side, it is clear that the acceptance of FrP as a party suitable to govern a country forms part of a worrying European shift to the right, from the much more extreme Golden Dawn in Greece, and the Hungarian Jobbik party, to the less explicit Swedish anti-immigration mindset, or Labour and Tories accepting a shift similar to Norway’s in the UK. These convictions are growing not only in size, but in their acceptability as part of public debate. Even in countries with few explicitly extreme groups, there is a plethora of extremist individuals existing just below the surface of what seems to be a civil society with liberal, open mindsets. And increasingly, parties with such a membership base are making it into government. To fight this issue we will need to challenge the liberal mindset in which statements and policy interests towards the extreme are accommodated and deemed acceptable.

By Ragnhild Freng Dale | @Ragnhildfd


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