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The Politics of Economic Expertise : Economics, the State, and the Neoliberalisation of Finnish Social Democracy

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Title: The Politics of Economic Expertise : Economics, the State, and the Neoliberalisation of Finnish Social Democracy
Author(s): Wahlsten, Johan
Contributor: University of Helsinki, Faculty of Social Sciences
Degree program: Master's Programme in Global Politics and Communication
Specialisation: Global Political Economy
Language: English
Acceptance year: 2022
Taking the Social Democratic Party of Finland (SDP) as a case study, this thesis contributes to the understanding of how the SDP and centre-left parties more generally were neoliberalised, this is to say how they became to embrace the idea that society is best organised through markets and competition. Drawing from the work of Stephanie Mudge, the thesis focuses on party experts, those party actors oriented towards producing truth-claims of society, hence affecting the way parties conceive the world and speak. Expert’s knowledge, however, is contingent on their social locations. They are often also situated in professional fields that tend to condition which ideas count as legitimate, making their positions explanatory relevant with regards to parties’ disposition and rhetoric. Methodologically the work draws from the tradition of historical sociology and Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social fields. The material utilised consists of (auto)biographies; past historical and social scientific research; reference works; SDP’s archival documents; and historical newspaper and magazine writings and interviews. The central argument is that Mudge’s account—taken as the work’s hypothesis—of the neoliberalisation of centre-left parties in “core countries” (the UK, the US, Sweden, and Germany) is inadequate in the case of the SDP embedded in Finland’s peripheral context. Mudge asserts that a central driver in the parties’ neoliberalisation was the interdependence between the political field of the party and the field of economics, which developed as interwar economic disruption incited an intense search within economics for novel ways to control the economy via public spending and demand management. This also led to an influx of academic economists with a “Keynesian ethic” to centre-left parties. The interdependence, however, allowed for economics’ politicisation from the 1960s onwards, this then influencing the field’s reorientation away from Keynesianism and towards monetarism and subsequently leading to the emergence and triumph of new party experts possessing a “neoliberal ethic”. Relatively stable interwar economic development, the bourgeoisie’s post-Civil War dominance in the society and academia, and the Finnish economics’ “backwardness” meant that no comparable need for seeking novel solutions existed nor was there responsiveness for the ideas developed abroad. Consequently, no interdependence between the SDP and economics developed in interwar or immediate postwar years. In the 1960s economic experts did gain a central position within the party. But these experts were not connected with the academia nor did the SDP embrace “Keynesian” prescriptions, the party and its experts instead banking on the combination of economic planning and export-led growth strategy. Neither was evidence found of economics’ politicisation as a left-wing discipline. Instead, it was oft precisely the SDP’s economic experts that critiqued “Keynesian” academic economists. In sum, arguably no interdependence between economics and the SDP developed either in this period. Instead, a new hypothesis is posited as an alternative account, namely that the SDP’s neoliberalisation can be better accounted for through the interdependence that developed between the bureaucratic field’s economic institutions and the party. Conjecturally, the interdependence, owing, among other things, to the SDP’s political appointments to the state, was politicised and the ideas of economic planning and the state’s control of the economy’s important elements were discredited in the context of the 1970s economic downturn. The interdependence, however, also led to novel kinds of experts—the state economists—gaining a powerful position within the SDP and making their interpretation of the economy common sense in the party. These experts perceived that their role in politics was to advance the “general interest” of the nation and the amorphous “people”, not any segment of it. With the export businesses hegemonic in society, in effect, this meant an emphasis on their profitability, cost competitiveness, and inflation and subsequently wage repression and budget constraint. The affinities between neoliberal notions and this policy conception and the habit in the Finnish state to conceive the world in terms of “external necessities” meant the state economists possessed great responsiveness to neoliberal ideas. While gaining preliminary support from evidence this hypothesis requires further work on several counts.
Keyword(s): historical sociology sociology of knowledge theory of social fields social democracy neoliberalism political parties expertise economics state

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