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Political culture in Norway: “More democracy and openness” as a reaction to violence

Yesterday, a double act of extreme violence has hit Norway and speculations on who did this have started as it is usual in the news media cycle. Besides the explosion in the governmental district in central Oslo, for me the more shocking act – if one can say this –  is the shooting of young people at a social democratic youth camp in Utøya because besides the horrible attack on the life of human beings it is also an attack on democratic youth activism that we need for our democracies.

Then, in a press conference after the attacks I’ve watched on BBC, the Norwegian (social democratic) prime minister Jens Stoltenberg said, calmly and in an impressively reasoned fashion: “our answer to violence is more openness, more democracy but we will not be naïve” (cited after @benteka who also triggered that I wrote this post).

Update: Here is the short speech by Stoltenberg with English subtitles, the quote (slightly different in order) is at the end.

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Now I’m no expert on Norwegian politics or democracy, despite my interest for circles of Norwegian farmers. But as a European citizen, I’m fascinated by such a statement that in fact sounds positively different to what you usually hear after violent attacks in other political systems.

And as a political scientist, I am tempted to try to understand such a statement in the context of the political system, given that it comes from a social democratic Norwegian prime minister. And so my academic eyes fell on “Why social democracy is not a civil society regime in Norway” (Journal of Political Ideologies, Volume 15, Issue 3, 2010, pages 289-301) by Per Selle and Dag Wollebæk.

The article highlights that since the liberalisation of the freedom of the organisation in Norway in the middle of the 19th century, the development of an active civil society of which the labour movement is just one branch has made that “the Norwegian voluntary sector is comparatively speaking very large” and that “a culture of mass participation was present long before the Labour Party came into power” (292).

Another reason why Selle and Wollebæk make a difference between “social democratic” organisation and organised civil society in the voluntary sector is that the latter (in their view) is less “expressive” and more oriented towards the provision of social services than the political branch of the labour movement. The focus is seen more on consensus than on conflict in this political model that may appear “social democratic” but is not necessarily linked to labour politics.

Interestingly, and against expectation, “the strongest organized civil society would be found in rural and peripheral communities, often in which the parties of the centre have dominated politically” (292). Also different to what one might expect, the historically grown organisational structure of civil society, according to Selle and Wollebæk, allowed and allows a link between the local and the national political level, making it an “integrated” socio-political system, instead of layered one.

Nevertheless, organisational membership of young people has declined between 1997-2004 while (short term) volunteer activities have increased, “decoupling” membership and activism, thereby also decoupling the bonds between the local and the national level (p. 295-6). This, by highlighting the individual more strongly than the societal organisation, would reduce the role of civil society as an intermediate structure between the citizens and the political system, putting pressure on the established socio-political system (299).

Now, given this background, one can re-read the statement of Stoltenberg regarding the need for “more democracy and openness” in the light of the article by Selle and Wollebæk – and also in the light of the fact that according to the latest news the attacks were done by a Norwegian man, maybe for political reasons.

Hence, while this comes from a social democratic prime minister short after a horrible event, this statement still appears to be an expression of a historically grown political culture of openness and linked civic participation in Norway, a political culture that however has been under pressure through new trends in the last decade(s) – trends that seem to be more oriented towards liberal ideology than social democratic ideology.

In political terms, Stoltenberg seemed to have understood that first, overreaction to such an attack would put even more pressure on such a system of openness and linked participation that he seems to value, and second, that this was also a moment for “more democracy“, maybe meaning to re-couple civil society and the political system because one could interpret such an act of extreme (in particular, if indeed: politically-motivated) violence as a consequence of the decoupling of the socio-political bonds.

In short: Through his statement, Stoltenberg, in a few words, is both in opposition to classic reactions to acts of terror we have seen in the past years while showing sound reflection of past and current Norwegian political developments. A call for “more democracy and openness” in such a situation is an expression of a political culture that is indeed remarkable, both for him as a politician but also for the Norwegian political system as a whole.

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