By an activist.
One of the most common arguments we hear throughout our boycott campaign is that although voting does not fundamentally change society, it may change the immediate conditions of the masses. The logic goes that if only enough social democratic parties are voted into Parliament or local governments, certain policies or budgetary decisions can raise the living standards of residents. Another variant is that by voting in enough social democrats, one normalizes a movement towards the “left” and lays the ground for even more progressive changes in the future. Let’s consider these claims.
The Marginalized and Exploited Exist – Yes, Even in Norway
Norway is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Measured by GDP (PPP) per capita1, Norway is ranked number 6 in the world.2 For the past two decades, Norway has ranked between 3rd and 5th in terms of healthcare expenditure per capita.3 Since 2005, no other government in the world has spent more on education per capita than Norway.4 As of 2017, 8.4% of Norway’s population fell below the poverty line; only 5 countries in Europe have lower poverty rates.5
Some have suggested that given these conditions, there is no suffering or need for radical change in Norway. We know that this is of course untrue. People of color are daily persecuted by the police. This summer, an infant and an elderly woman died from contaminated water, and the neglect of the waterworks led to the hospitalization of 2000 people in Askøy Municipality. The lack of adequate public transportation solutions has been exploited by champagne-sipping parasites who fleece average people for up to 10% of their incomes just for trying to get to work. Sick people who miss a doctor’s appointment or forget to pay will have to cough up double in order to line the pockets of millionaire Jesper Melin Ganc-Petersen, who sends threats to journalists who write about his scam. Children fleeing the violence wrought by Norwegian bombs are put in internment camps, are subject to a psychological harassment campaign by the police, or are forced to live underground. And 8.4% living in poverty, although one of the lowest rates in the Western world, means that nearly half a million people live on less than 12.500 NOK a month, before taxes.6 Roughly 160.000 people can’t afford to replace worn-out clothing. An estimated million people can’t afford unexpected expenses.7 In one of the world’s wealthiest countries!
This is to say nothing of foreign policy. Surely, then, there is a need for change.
Does Voting Help?
From the large scale…
Suppose, as the “Socialist” “Left” Party does, that entering into an alliance with a party that dropped hundreds – if not thousands – of bombs on Libya (or Afghanistan, or Yugoslavia, for that matter) in the service of Yankee imperialism is a justifiable “necessary evil” to secure funding for Norwegian public schools. We know, of course, that it isn’t, but surely such an extreme position must come replete with extreme rewards (and here we are not talking about Jens Stoltenberg’s appointment as the Secretary General of NATO as his reward for bombing Libya).
Between 2009 and 2013, during Stoltenberg’s coalition government, the public kindergarten teacher-to-student ratio increased by just 8%, a rate almost identical to that under Stoltenberg’s first administration, and a more or less baseline rate of increase. Throughout both Stoltenberg administrations, the private school ratio actually increased at a higher rate.8 In other words, education quality follows the same trend, regardless of who sits in government, and regardless of whether or not SV compromises on Stoltenberg’s war crimes to join a coalition government.
Perhaps one might argue that national figures fall short on this kind of question and that it is more useful to look at local elections. Let’s consider Tromsø, where the 2015 local elections took the municipality from being more or less dominated by the Conservatives and the “Progress Party” to a municipal government where Labour, Red, SV, and MDG have a wide majority. In this time, municipal funding of kindergartens per student has increased by all of 5%, while out of pocket costs have increased by the same rate!9 Again: this means no effective change for working people.
Perhaps, like those in Askøy, you have no hope that your vote will change the world, but may at least ensure that you have access to clean drinking water, or that treatment facilities will not pollute the soil your children play on. Astonishingly enough, just 26.1% of people living in Tromsø live in homes connected to wastewater facilities complying with treatment permits. Down from 35% in 2015! Yet even more astonishing is the 13.6% municipal fee hike for wastewater distribution!10 The percentage of people living in Tromsø with access to recreational areas has fallen by 6% since 2013.11 No changes have been made in regards to protected natural areas.12
Since 2015, spending on assistance to substance abusers per capita has decreased by 33% in Tromsø, despite a steady number of people using institutional services. The number of public hospital beds per capita has remained more or less constant.13 In 2015, 70% of public housing applications in Tromsø Municipality were rejected. The next year, 83% of applications were rejected. Last year, only 27% of those who applied for public housing were either accepted or received no response (did not have their case handled yet).14 The same number of people lived in crowded dwellings in 2015 as they did in 2018 in Tromsø.15
Many more examples of municipalities flip-flopping its colors and then doing diddly-squat abound. Sure, all of these things get a lot worse if key social services sectors are privatized, but at the end of the day, it is not up the goodwill of each individual politician to deliver on their promises – FrP, Labour, or SV. At the end of the day, the politicians can only choose how desperately they will yell “how high?”, and have no say over when the cyclical demands of the capitalist system bark “jump!” Under capitalism, it is not people who employ capital. Capital employs people. If profit rates fall, then capital needs to be freed. It makes no difference which party is at the wheel when the car is headed straight for the wall, as capitalism is wont to steer it.
We have seen how even the Red Party will backpedal on the most straightforward questions like “should we oppose closing the borders?” when push comes to shove. In fact, we have seen that more refugees were granted asylum under a Conservative/FrP government under Solberg than there were under a Labour/SV government under Stoltenberg. Even accounting for percentage of applications rejected, Labour, with all its illusions about being progressive, still outperformed Solberg when it came time to deport innocent people back to war and terror.16 Why? Because neither of these parties or politicians actually give a damn about refugees, nor how Norwegian people feel about them, for that matter.
…to the very small
Perhaps, dismayed, we will chalk these failures up to the “business as usual” modus operandi of Norwegian bureaucracy. Things move slowly in Parliamentary circles, local politics are filled with tedium, and so on. But maybe voting, despite our hopes and best intentions, does not deliver material results. Maybe voting is more about “shifting the narrative”, or elevating voices that will speak on our behalf.
From 2009 to 2013, a red-green alliance sat in government, and from 2013 until the present, there has been a “blue-blue” alliance. How did this influence the opinions and attitudes of Norwegians? Did people become more open for revolutionary ideas under a “leftist” government? Did people become more racist under a “rightist” government?
Of course not. The results of the election made absolutely no difference in terms of racist attitudes among Norwegians. As the graph above shows, there is no correlation between attitudes towards immigrants and the sitting government.17 The only exception was that after the election of the current government, more people now believe it should be easier for refugees and asylum seekers to obtain a residence permit in Norway than before. If anything, this would be evidence to suggest that the opposite is true: that people become more racist under “leftist” governments. Yet, this is also obviously untrue: the real answer lies in the fact that bourgeois politics are completely removed from what is best for the people at large, or how they feel about social issues. It is in every sense of the word a false democracy.
Regardless of who is in Parliament, political engagement in general also remains more or less the same. The number of people who are members of humanitarian or political organizations has been constant for the last 20 years.18 The only counterexample is SV’s youth organization, which experienced enormous growth in 2000, only to be reduced to a husk in 2005, right before the elections.
Nor is the argument that election will provide “trusted” representatives any more compelling. East-Oslo “local” Jan Bøhler was an Oslo Labour representative on the Standing Committee on Local Government and Public Administration from 2013 to 2017. This Committee is responsible for, among other things, issues regarding: local government, immigration policy, housing policy, building and construction, and national minorities. Bøhler likes to wax poetic about calling the predominantly marginalized district his home, but like any other gentrifier, he never hesitates to side with the police when they are out making rounds beating black children in “his backyard”.
His bibliography is filled to the brim with cringe-worthy “hello fellow proletarians”-type concern-trolling and his discography is unfathomably worse. Representing Oslo in Parliament since 2005, he has promised to make Oslo “safe for everybody” by means of “rights and responsibilities, solidarity, and management capability”.19 The maps below should illuminate precisely what he means by “rights and responsibilities, solidarity, and management capability”. 20
On average, Oslo Municipality spends over 50% more on children living in Nordre Aker than children in Søndre Nordstrand or Stovner. That’s a 60.000 NOK edge – more than half of what the US spends per child. 22% more is spent on children in predominantly “Norwegian” Ullern and Frogner than their counterparts in predominantly “differently Norwegian” east and south Oslo.21
How Not to Change Politics
We have seen that the tendency of bourgeois politics of not only Norway, but all of Western Europe, is towards privatization, centralization, and austerity. For Norway, this takes the particular form of erasing district-level political autonomy. In June 2014, Parliament passed a measure to reduce 119 of Norway’s 356 municipalities into 47 new municipalities. On June 8, 2017, Parliament passed a measure to merge Norway’s 19 counties into 11.
Similar trends have been seen in university policies, where the community colleges of Buskerud, Vestfold, and Telemark have been merged into one institution. The community colleges of Gjørvik, Sør-Trøndelag, and Ålesund have been folded into NTNU. Narvik and Harstad universities have become a part of the University of Tromsø. Despite promises that Nesna would be treated on equal footing in the merge with Nord University, the campus in Nesna has been closed indefinitely. Cutting through the fluffy rhetoric of “efficiency” and “cooperation”, we can see that in practice, these merges have meant nothing but cuts in education opportunities, a vampiric sucking of life out of rural regions, and a deepening gap between the large cities and the countryside.
In response, Norwegians have tried to take back some of their local autonomy by passing local referenda. Referenda have often been used by people in some Western countries when bourgeois politics are revealed as the sham they are, and the people’s disenfranchisement reaches a tipping point. It is a means by which people who still erroneously hold out hope for bourgeois democracy try to take power back from faceless, distant bureaucrats, and not surprisingly, has been decried by bourgeois politicians as a “populist” practice. But the reality, even if technocrats oppose them, is that they are fundamentally part of a system that does not care about democracy. It is of no use to use parliament to defeat parliament. To quote Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.
The number of local referenda in Norway reached a record high in 2016, with 204 referenda, shattering the previous record by more than fourfold. 202 of these dealt with municipal and county merges. In several communities, the turnout for the referenda was higher than it had been for any of the 3 previous national elections. In 2009, the right of municipalities to carry out local referenda regarding administrative borders was legally granted. Yet despite the fact that 74% of referenda dealing with merges were voted against by a majority of voters, many of the results were simply vetoed by the blue-blue coalition government,22 showing beyond the shadow of a doubt that this so-called “populist” practice by no means belongs to “the people”.
Labour insists that they voted against Parliament’s 2017 decision to merge Norway’s counties, claiming that they fought for “voluntary” reform. Yet Labour explicitly signed off on the clause that reads:
Exceptions to this voluntary principle may nonetheless be applicable in special situations where individual municipalities cannot be allowed to hinder changes that are necessary for regional considerations.23
This is the very same clause that enables the government to forcibly merge counties and municipalities today. And of course, when the heat is turned up just weeks before the election, Labour makes all sorts of wild promises about democracy, passing the buck, pointing fingers and playing “whodunnit?”.
How to Change Politics
Politicians have plans for Norway that have nothing to do with Norwegians’ actual wishes and needs. Campaign promises, silly “explanations” about how the government’s centralization measures are really to the benefit of the people, and spouting hot air about local democracy are like the “close door” button on elevators. The buttons are there for those who have the keys, but without the key, they don’t do anything except make the person pressing them feel that they are in control. It’s almost like a toy that you can play with to help you forget about the fact that you are running late, stuck in this claustrophobic, stuffy elevator. Let’s take the stairs. It’ll take more work, but we’ll live longer for it, and we’ll be the ones in control of when and how we get there.
The only thing that bourgeois democracy has to offer is distractions. Voting in elections or passing referenda will not stop the construction of windmills in Frøya, the cuts in public services, or the police brutality in marginalized districts of Oslo. Only the people’s struggle – the act of taking matters into our own hands – can do this. Our power is in our feet, in our fists, and in our lungs – not in their ballot boxes.
- A country’s gross national product, or GDP, is the value of all final goods and services produced within the country in a given year. The purchasing power parity, or PPP, is a way to measure relative value, and scales economic variables according to the cost of living in a given country.
- International Monetary Fund (2018).
- https://data.oecd.org/inequality/poverty-rate.htm. The other 5 are: the Netherlands, France, Finland, Czech Republic, and Denmark.
- https://www.ssb.no/en/befolkning/statistikker/innvhold/aar. The seven items were “Most immigrants make an important contribution to Norwegian working life”, “Most immigrants abuse the system of social benefits“, “Most immigrants enrich the cultural life in Norway”, “Most immigrants are a cause of insecurity in society”, “All immigrants in Norway should have the same opportunities to have a job as Norwegians”, “Immigrants should make an effort to become as similar to Norwegians as possible”, and “Labour immigration from non-Nordic countries makes a mainly positive contribution to Norwegian economy”. The figures used in the graph are the average percentage of people who responded “Strongly Agree” or “Agree” among all seven items, reverse coded where necessary.
- https://www.ssb.no/en/kultur-og-fritid/statistikker/orgakt/hvert-3-aar. There are gaps in the data available from SSB between 2007 and 2011.
- https://www.ssb.no/en/statbank/table/12610 and https://www.ssb.no/en/utdanning?de=Kindergartens. Each dot represents 20 persons. Green dots represent persons with immigration backgrounds from Western Europe, North America, and Oceania (which SSB groups together) and those with no immigration background. Red dots represent persons with immigration backgrounds from Asia, Africa, South and Central America, and Turkey, which SSB groups together. Blue dots represent persons with immigration backgrounds from Eastern Europe. The position of the dots within each district are random. See here for a similar graphical study of segregation in the US.
- https://www.nrk.no/norge/slik-har-ap-og-hoyre-vinglet-vilt-om-kommunereform-1.13340266. Our translation.