About Progress

Last Saturday, I published a post in Norwegian about the populist Progress Party, currently a junior partner in a Conservative-led government around here. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would be widely read (my blog was notoriously ignored and sadly neglected), but to my great surprise, it began to spread epidemically on Facebook within hours. The newspaper Dagbladet reproduced a distorted version of the gist (their reporter revealed a limited understanding of punctuation), stirring up a bit of controversy for a few hours. The other major media, to their considerable credit, respected my wish not to engage. I was busy (with, ironically, a conference on identity in situations of accelerated change) and had no desire, besides, to participate in political debate. Sensing a breeze brewing in a teapot, I emptied the teapot to prevent the tempest from developing; in a word, I took the post down. Notwithstanding, here it is again, with somewhat modified language (fewer colloquialisms and double entendres), and a bit of necessary context for the non-local readership – but it can doubtless be misunderstood again. Enjoy!

So, then: The Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet). Is it, as many have claimed, a soft fascist party drawing sustenance from suspicion of others and contempt for weakness in Harald Ofstad’s sense (Vår forakt for svakhet – ‘Our contempt for weakness’), of which the voters do not realise that they may end up as the next victims? That is to say, (pardon my French) a ‘white trash’ kind of party depending on its voters being lowly educated, not understanding their own good and therefore voting against their objective interests? Or is it rather, as not least many Norwegian politicians from other parties staunchly affirmed after the last elections, a perfectly respectable, democratic party in the best tradition of the Enlightenment? (The party entered into a coalition government with the Conservatives a little over a year ago.) Not a word about the fact that the terrorist Breivik, as foreign media repeatedly pointed out, had been a party member for years? (In Norway, it consistently leads to an outrage whenever this fact is merely mentioned.) Many in Norway remember that the party chairman Siv Jensen exclaimed, following the 22/7/11 explosion in the city centre, that ‘this is an attack on Norway’, but they also recall that she did not repeat that sentence when it became clear that the atrocities had not been committed by a group of Muslims, but one of her own black sheep. It is true that Breivik went from right-wing populism to right-wing extremism when he lost his belief in democratic institutions, but the boundary is not fixed once and for all. At the same time, it is doubtless true, as the party has claimed, that he left the party in 2006 because it was “too liberal”.

The answer is “none of the above”: it is a fascinating, but not a fascist party. It contains diverse elements, combining impulses from different strands of Norwegian populism, including anti-authoritarianism, scepticism of the stranger, disdain of centralised bureaucracy and a strong belief in “common sense” (but oblivious of the fact that common sense is a cultural system which varies between life-worlds.)

Norwegian politicians and commentators of nearly all hues have responded with indignation to a widespread view among foreign observers and scholars, namely that the Progress Party is a member of a political family which also includes Geert Wilders, Marine LePen, Pia Kjærsgaard and the Swedish Democrats. Scholars tend to agree that Progress is more libertarian than the others, but their general politics closely parallels that of other right-wing populists. (The major newspaper VG ran an interesting comparison between Progress and the Swedish Democrats recently (http://www.vg.no/nyheter/utenriks/sverige/frp-og-sverigedemokraterna-hvor-like-er-de/a/23295580/), which revealed that the similarities were striking, and not just concerning issues to do with minorities and immigration. Yet, spokespersons of the party are adamant in their denial of any such connections, and have even been known to deny that the party is a populist party.

It has been objected to the linking of Progress to other European anti-immigration parties that its history is different. Notably, it is said that the party founder Anders Lange (1904–1974) was a libertarian whose aim was mainly to reduce taxation dramatically in postwar social democratic Norway. But Lange supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and Ian Smith’s white supremacist state in Rhodesia, was critical of interracial marriages, and had served as secretary of the right-wing Fedrelandslaget (‘The Fatherland League) from 1930 to 1938. (He would later join the resistance against the German occupation.)

Although the Progress Party certainly has its moderate wing, represented e.g. among government ministers, as well as many moderate and committed local councillors around the country, media stories are published regularly about party members, often in official positions, making outlandish statements about foreigners as well as Norwegians of foreign parentage. One recently spoke of Norwegian jihadists as ‘half-apes’, while another expressed a wish not only to cleanse Hedmark county of Muslims, but to ‘exterminate Islam from the world, because it is such a horrid (grotesk) culture that one shivers when hearing about what they do in the countries where they rule’. Among their MPs, Mr Christian Tybring-Gjedde, who represents my hometown, is especially vocal in condemning the alleged threats to Norwegian culture represented by immigrants. He has stated that ‘Islam cannot stand freedom values’, and that integration into the society should, inter alia, be based on ‘unconditional love of Norway and our Christian heritage’ (sic). When asked about the content of the ‘Norwegian culture’ that is threatened by immigration, he nevertheless finds it difficult to respond, similarly to his party chairman Siv Jensen when asked to substantiate her allegations that ‘Islamicisation by stealth’ was taking place in the country.

Only last week, the minister of children, gender equality and inclusion, Ms Solveig Horne, expressed the desire that people (presumably men – women were not mentioned) with a medieval view of women ought to pull themselves together. Well, I assume many would agree with this particular perspective. Alhough lots of people like the Middle Ages (especially in fantasy literature), few would like to live then. But how can this kind of analysis form the basis of a political action plan? My personal anxiety concerns the future possibility of establishing a functioning community of disagreement, if we, the citizens, have to discuss politics in these terms. During the early years of this century, parallel societies, which were hardly on speaking terms, seemed to emerge in Denmark as a result of a sharp turn to the right politically and a fundamental disagreement as to the meaning of the word ‘we’. Will something similar happen in Norway? It is too early to tell. Many commentators in the media have argued that the experience of being in power has had a mitigating effect on the party’s more boisterous tendencies, while others may equally well argue that the terms of discourse are being shifted in a particular direction for exactly the same reasons.

There are people who think that academics shouldn’t have opinions. They ought, allegedly, to be engaged in objective research instead. But the premise is wrong. Objective research is a fiction. Moreover, although the snug comfort of the seminar room is, arguably, far more pleasant than the unpredictability of the public sphere, academics may occasionally morph into intellectuals, that is talking and writing about matters which are not really our business. Finally, there is something about the relationship between social anthropology – my discipline – and the Progress Party, that recalls the structuralism of my student days, where the binary, the contrast, was the seed of enlightenment. For among anthropologists, it is assumed, as a matter of basic methodology, that nothing human shall be alien to us (humani nil a me alienum puto). As regards the Progress Party, it may sometimes seem as if the situation is the exact opposite.

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I’ve also written elsewhere recently, not about Progress as such, but about the discourses in Norwegian society about the terrorist attack: