Rainer Kattel: Estonia as an idea and ideology

Rainer Kattel.
Rainer Kattel. Source: www.ucl.ac.uk

The first general elections of the 2020s will very likely produce a coalition of the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) and the Reform Party that will potentially stay in power for a long time. That will be the strongest legacy of 2010, Rainer Kattel writes in a comment originally published in Vikerkaar.

The main development of the second decade of the 21st century in Estonia is initially gradual but increasingly vocal retreat of capitalism as the underlying political truth. While it was by no means clear what would replace free market fundamentalism after the 2008 crisis, the last few years have brought to the limelight the need to preserve Estonians as a species, evidenced especially clearly in the coming to power of the Conservative People's Party (EKRE).

EKRE remains the only political force in Estonia for whom free market capitalism is not the only proper and possible way to create and distribute resources in society.

As far as the party is concerned, capitalism and private and public sector relations can be altered as necessary, as dictated by other political goals. It constitutes a unique position in the history of re-independent Estonia.

EKRE are not unique in the global picture as the party is riding the same wave as Trump, Brexit and other such movements. What is noteworthy in the Estonian context is how closely EKRE's emergence is tied to changes in what we can describe as the idea of Estonia. This idea that is simultaneously form and vision – a perception of opportunity.

The idea of Estonia is a vision of what Estonia is, what it is about and what it could become. It is the peculiarity of small cultures that it is often difficult to maintain several viable ideas at once in them. Any idea is in danger of becoming the one and only idea – an ideology in other words. The latter suffers no alternative opinion or vision next to it. Ideology seeks to dominate that which is different. Ideology tolerates no criticism of itself.

Estonian culture has been dominated by this idea of Estonia as a special nation probably since the time of [Carl Robert] Jakobson – a nation that first discovered its ideological foundation in setting itself apart from foreign (mainly German) rule and culture.

Jakobson's patriotic speeches could be described as proclamations that "Estonian lives matter" today – so dominating in them is the aspiration to show that the Estonian language and culture and the people who bear them deserve the chance to exist independently of German language and culture.

Jakobson's attempt to take the roots of Estonia as an idea back to ancient religion and pre-Christian independence on the one hand and boil them down to a kind of victim mentality caused by the dark ages and their long aftermath on the other is noteworthy.

These two polarities form the structural axes of Estonia as an idea in the last century: an attempt to restore former glory and independence and the conviction that historic suffering is the fault of foreign powers and culture.

It is easy to see how these axes reinforce the idea of Estonia and ideologize it at the same time. We can find examples in many of Jaan Kross' characters whose wit and shrewdness sends them into arguments with foreign rulers before ultimately giving in to history as written by others.

We can find it also in numerous local museums, the Estonian National Museum and elsewhere where the practicable idea of culture lies in its museality: the ability to preserve, look back and find sparks of the Estonian idea from centuries if not millennia ago and show which foreign power tried to extinguish them and why.

It is almost impossible to find a cultural institution or phenomenon that would also critically consider possible dark sides or slips of the Estonian idea. No one or nothing is perfect, with the exception of truths existing in an ideological vacuum.

Capitalism arrived as the first alternative to such an idea and ideology of Estonia. Estonia regaining its independence and capitalism share the same core text: IME, the self-sufficient Estonia proposal (1987). While circumstances at the time and the background of its authors left the text dry and technocratic, it has nevertheless served as the most Estonian core idea until recent years in that the nation is defined through its economic self-determination.

IME is perhaps the first time when the Estonian idea becomes future-oriented and individualist. We all want to be in charge of our prosperity, while we are also obligated to be.

The idea has taken many forms throughout the 1990s and the first two decades of the 21st century, while the idea of capitalist Estonia is best summed up in the definition of competitiveness.

This idea, that is also among the widest-spread globally, originally tied into dismantling the pillars of the Soviet economy in Estonia. Instead of drawing up and meeting plans, we had to compete with one another in terms of ideas, hard work etc. This quickly became international competitiveness, outward projected ability to make it and be noticed.

By now, this kind of competitive treatment has made its way into virtually all walks of life. Noteworthy are companies that export, artists that make it to international biennales or movies competing for international awards, while scientists who are most cited are also the most valuable.

The individualist cult of success of the neoliberal age is known as competitive ability in Estonia. However, this idea is not free from ideologization either. Those who are not internationally competitive are cut off from attention and support.

It is curious at this point that criteria of competitiveness are almost never Estonian-made. These criteria are symbols of foreign power we voluntarily copy and subject ourselves to.

Competitiveness as an ideology manufactures a narrow and uniform elite. One is hard-pressed to find examples where it is questioned. Therein lies the calcifying strength of ideology. The example of Estonia as an internationally successful e-state is especially curious. I'm sure not a week goes by without a politician or entrepreneur declaring that Estonia is the world's foremost digital country. While we do not have a single international index or metric to corroborate it, there is no domestic debate about it. The tiny white lie goes unnoticed.

The practice of blatantly ignoring areas where Estonia is not internationally competitive is equally striking. Estonia has for years had Europe's biggest gender wage gap, while the corresponding debate is peripheral and annual state budget funding for equality falls below sums allocated for FIA Rally Estonia in September of 2020.

There are many similar examples, looking if only at narcotics-related deaths, prevalence of HIV or deepening national segregation.

Competitiveness-based ideology has ironically diminished domestic competition in many walks of life. We can take the examples of banking and pension funds where consumers are offered expensive and uniform services compared to the European context.

Local agricultural produce is hard to find in malls and chain stores even when it is in season. Urban landscapes are dominated by almost identical grocery stores and malls, gas stations and entertainment providers.

Falling victim to the ideology of competitiveness are brighter attempts to introduce new and radical reform ideas in terms of Estonia's functioning, such as the so-called Ice Cellar process aimed at changing the rules of politics or state reform attempts to alter the foundations of administration. Neither reform reinforced the main patterns of competitiveness and, therefore, managed to find traction.

Its clearest victim, however, is the former idea of a museal Estonia and its ideological form. This is reflected most clearly in the new Estonian National Museum building and concept that caused smaller local museums to become irrelevant and the business model of which perfectly reflects the competitiveness-based approach.

On the global scale, however, it is this competitiveness and the policies based on it that have fallen victim to COVID-19. The crisis of globalization that preceded the pandemic and in developed countries manifested as loss of middle-class jobs and acceleration of the climate crisis in the shadow of consumerism birthed both Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg.

In other words, in the shadow of neoliberal capitalism fading and as a counterweight to it, a polarization of ideas and ideologies has been created that the pandemic has deepened on both the left and right wings of politics. However, the competitiveness ideology has kept notable left-wing thought or ideology from forming in Estonia.

Despite numerous warnings found in the editorials of dailies of feminism, #metoo and other kinds of leftist threats, Estonia does not have a single left-wing sociologist, while we can likely count people of this particular persuasion on the fingers of one hand even among artists.

The strength of EKRE lies in having picked up on the fading of this ideology of competitiveness and offering voters a non-capitalist alternative. No matter how clumsy their attempts at emulating Trump and others, it works because it offers a new idea of Estonia based on Estonians being more valuable than other people.

Estonians are more valuable than foreign workers or students. Estonians are more valuable than refugees. Estonians are more valuable than LGBTQ. Estonians are masculine.

However, EKRE's idea of Estonia starts out as an ideology and therefore in search of an enemy it could quickly liquidate. Let us look at the Social Democratic Party's attempt at contrasting itself to EKRE on the ideological battleground of Estonia as an idea back when the party was still headed by Jevgeni Ossinovski. It ended in a clear defeat.

The robustness of EKRE's ideology and the party binning the competitiveness alternative forces other right-wing and centrist political and social forces to follow it into the radical right corner of the spectrum.

No matter how appreciative one is of this summer's performances by Sveta Grigorjeva and Mikk Pärnits, they ironically ended up benefiting EKRE even though the party was the main target of criticism. As long as the anti-EKRE or EKRE-critical discourse fails to question Estonian capitalism as based on the competitiveness ideology, they will hold on to their advantage of those with the new ideology. Almost everyone who does not wish to see EKRE in the government is paving the way for their continued rise in current criticism that tries to challenge their style and values.

EKRE's Estonian ideology already has powerful allies, for example, in Postimees that is trying to build a bridge between EKRE and the museal Estonia. The latter also proved a source of inspiration for the Reform Party at the 2010 elections, especially through clearly contrasting to the local Russian community.

The first general elections of 2020 will very likely produce a coalition of EKRE and the Reform Party that will have the potential to remain in power for a long time. That will be the strongest legacy of 2010. Therefore, the new decade will bring us a toxic mix of the remnants of the competitiveness ideology of the 2010s, such as austerity policy that will only become stronger as COVID-19 recedes, and EKRE's brand of the masculine singularity of Estonians.

The history of Estonia as an idea and ideology teaches us that forms allowed to take shape become lasting and dominating. The competitiveness ideology ruled for almost three decades before it started running out of steam.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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