Finnish Municipal Socialism

“Finland is the only EU country where homelessness is falling. Its secret? Giving people homes as soon as they need them – unconditionally.”

Finland, simply put, is socialist.

In the good ol’ days here in the United States of America, this is what used to be called sewer socialism or municipal socialism, what some would now prefer to more safely brand as social democracy but it’s the same difference. It was famous in Milwaukee, having lasted for almost three quarters of a century, from the Populism of the 1890s to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. This pragmatic socialist city was known all across the country as one of the most effectively governed at the time, praised during the early Cold War even by those who weren’t socialists.

Did you ever wonder why the citizens of Milwaukee were so happy in the tv sitcom Happy Days? It’s because they were living under this local form of democratic socialism, one of the few governments in U.S. history that literally was “of the people, by the people, for the people”. It truly was a good time to be a citizen of Milwaukee. The People had faith in their government and their government honored that faith by serving the public good. To put it far more simply, one might just call it democracy. What a crazy idea! Democracy, we should try it again sometime here in this country.

The sewer socialists were called such because they were the earliest American government to fund major public health projects. It was meant to be derogatory in the hope of dismissing their achievements as a mere obsession with sewers, but the socialists took it as a point of pride in it being a major advancement in dealing with the pollution of industrialization and the diseases of mass urbanization. Instead of only building sewers for the rich, they ensured all members of the community had hygienic living conditions and clean water, something that was novel during that period. Everyone was guaranteed to have basic needs met, including a public-owned-and-operated bakery. On top of this, they cleaned up organized crime and political cronyism. They were social and moral reformers.

Their success became the precedent that all other US cities followed and has since become standard all across the developed world. We now take this sewer socialism for granted since it has become central to every major country, either at the national or local level. Government municipalities are seen as a basic function of any well-functioning political system, but that wasn’t always the case. That was a profound change in the public perception of government’s role. Any country that lacks such basic amenities are presently judged as backwards or even as “third world”, as it is considered a sign of some combination of poverty, failure, and corruption.

Most important, sewer socialism is proven to work, proven again and again and again. It turns out improving the living conditions of the poor improves the living conditions of all of society. For those who have heard of Jesus Christ, you might remember him saying in no uncertain terms that, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Now consider this — as of 2010 in Finland, “church attendance is just 1.5 percent in the capital city region” (Nina Mustonen, Church Attendance Falls; Religion Seen as Private). So, why did it take the capital city in one of the most secular countries in the world to follow a central Christian dictum?

American Christians might want to contemplate that. All of us, Christian and otherwise, should rethink socialism, maybe rethink our entire society.

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‘It’s a miracle’: Helsinki’s radical solution to homelessness
by Jon Henley, The Guardian

Housing First costs money, of course: Finland has spent €250m creating new homes and hiring 300 extra support workers. But a recent study showed the savings in emergency healthcare, social services and the justice system totalled as much as €15,000 a year for every homeless person in properly supported housing.

Interest in the policy beyond the country’s borders has been exceptional, from France to Australia, says Vesikansa. The British government is funding pilot schemes in Merseyside, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, whose Labour mayor, Andy Burnham, is due in Helsinki in July to see the policy in action.

But if Housing First is working in Helsinki, where half the country’s homeless people live, it is also because it is part of a much broader housing policy. More pilot schemes serve little real purpose, says Kaakinen: “We know what works. You can have all sorts of projects, but if you don’t have the actual homes … A sufficient supply of social housing is just crucial.”

And there, the Finnish capital is fortunate. Helsinki owns 60,000 social housing units; one in seven residents live in city-owned housing. It also owns 70% of the land within the city limits, runs its own construction company, and has a current target of building 7,000 more new homes – of all categories – a year.

In each new district, the city maintains a strict housing mix to limit social segregation: 25% social housing, 30% subsidised purchase, and 45% private sector. Helsinki also insists on no visible external differences between private and public housing stock, and sets no maximum income ceiling on its social housing tenants.

It has invested heavily, too, in homelessness prevention, setting up special teams to advise and help tenants in danger of losing their homes and halving the number of evictions from city-owned and social housing from 2008 to 2016.

“We own much of the land, we have a zoning monopoly, we run our own construction company,” says Riikka Karjalainen, senior planning officer. “That helped a lot with Housing First because simply, there is no way you will eradicate homelessness without a serious, big-picture housing policy.”

Culture As Agent of Social Change

I’ve become aware of a particular conflict that hides a deeper issue.

There are the partisans who often promote the view of voting for the lesser of two evils or else they promote the personality cult of a particular politician, the idea being that the right party or the right politician can save us from the problems or at least save us from these problems getting worse. The critics of this are often the right-wingers and left-wingers who instead propose particular ideologies or direct action tactics in the hope that change has to be forced from a more outside perspective.

I’m thinking both are wrong. What keeps things the way they are has to do with cultural factors that go much deeper than either party politics or ideological systems. So, what can change these problems must go deeper. I don’t know what that means, but what I sense is that parties and ideologies only barely touch the surface. Culture is hard to talk about and that is probably why it is often misunderstood and even more often ignored.

I’m not even sure what I’m trying to communicate by my use of the term ‘culture’. I’ve been studying the cultures of immigrants and regions in the US. It’s clear that it is fundamentally culture that has defined this country and it’s clear that it is fundamentally culture that has determined the events of history. But all of this is easier to see in hindsight. What is happening now in American culture? Where is it heading? How can it be shifted from within toward more positve ends?

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I can imagine what some political activists would think of my thoughts here. There is a certain kind of political activist who would see this discussion of ‘culture’ as basically metaphysical speculation. For them, politics is about action, about making things happen, about results.

I don’t exactly disagree, but I was just wondering if intelligent and effective action might be possible. Political activists have been trying the same basic tactics for a long time and they keep getting the same lackluster results. Simply getting attention for a protest doesn’t accomplish a whole lot and neither does getting your favorite politician elected.

It seems to me that something is being missed in all these political maneuverings and manipulations. I wish I could explain this better. I sense this ‘cultural’ issue is the most centrally important aspect to politics and society in general, but I don’t know if most people would understand what I’m trying to get at.

Culture is like the air we breath. It can seem intangible for the reason we are almost incapable of lookiing at it objectively. We are in it and so we take it for granted.

Anytime there is a massive shift in a society, especially in terms of politics, there is always a shift of culture that precedes it, sometimes preceding it for decades or longer. Cutlure usually shifts slowly and imperceptibly, but occasionally like a fault line a massive earthquake can occur when there are major realignments.

Here is the core question: Are we merely victims of such over-arching cultural shifts or can we control them to a certain extent? If we are victims to these underlying cultural factors, then we are victims to all of society and any political action becomes mere blind fumbling. But how to convince people to take culture seriously? Everyone on some level probably knows culture matters and yet few people ever give it much thought. Unless this changes, we will continue to be victims.

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Most people think of culture in terms of the groups we identify with because of similarities. Politicians are always playing off of our cultural prejudices, conservative politicians seeming to be particularly talented at this.

This is culture as ideological identity, as groupthink. This is culture as race (whites vs blacks, whites vs minorities), as origins (native-born vs foreigh-born), as ethnicity (European vs Asian), as religion (Christian vs Muslim, Protestant vs Catgholic), as region (North vs South, East Coast vs WEst Coast), etc. Or else added all together such as WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant).

But this isn’t primarily what I’m talking about. This barely scratches the surface and oversimplifies even these superficial factors.

It’s true, as this view portrays, that culture relates to how we perceive ourselves and others in context of how we perceive our society. However, this just points to what we are aware of and only the elements that are obvious enough to be made into stereotypes. On the other hand, there is a more complex level of culture that underlies and shapes our perceptions, including our perceptions of cultural stereotypes.

As such, to change perception is to change everything. Our perceived choices and perceived actions would change. Our perceived relationships and perceived realities would change. We are all trapped in a reality tunnel or else many overlapping reality tunnels. We can’t see outside of a reality tunnel until we’ve shifted to a new rality tunnel and maybe not even then. To consider a shift of culture on this fundamental level is in a sense a metaphysical speculation, but it is metaphysical speculation that points toward metaphysical action, the shifting of our very sense of shared reality.

I’m speaking of cultural paradigms. What is the cultural paradigm that makes some particular social/political/economic system or lifestyle seem possible and desirable?

Socialism used to seem both possible and desirable to average Midwesterners earlier last century. In fact, it seemed so possible and desirable that a successful socialist government was created and maintained for decades in Milwaukee. But now average Midwesterners no longer think according to that cultural paradigm.

What changed and how? There was political oppression from the Cold War that destroyed that cultural paradigm and caused many of the defenders of it to become less vocal or less radical or else flee the country. However, the fundamental Northern European culture that made this cultural paradigm possible still exists and still functions to some degree. The social democracy of the Midwest is the remnant of this cultural paradigm. It is a seed that could again manifest as effective socialism once again. What is stopping it from doing so? There are people alive right now in Milwaukee who were alive when the socialists governed the city, some of these having been socialists themselves or somehow involved with the socialist government. What has become of this still living memory?

In desiring and seeking change, what are we missing or misunderstanding?