Infrastructural Power and the Nordic State

by Dr. Helena Moradi, VHC Postdoctoral Fellow

Image via Pixabay.

The vulnerability theory propounded by Professor Fineman provides an alternative to the social contract paradigms for considering governmental accountability and the role of social institutions. Moreover, it offers a feasible methodology of (re)thinking social and political theory with respect to democratic legitimacy, social justice, autonomy, and state responsibility. The theory makes an intriguing contribution to our understanding of the nature of the state, in which the state is viewed as more than just an instrument for managing common interests. This critical perspective allows us to (re)think democratic governance, legitimacy, as well as the function and role of the state to also include a more expansive understanding of state responsibility which also entails an assessment of the infrastructural powers that often lie hidden in the background but that nevertheless constitute our everyday lives. To further expound on this infrastructural approach and its impact on individuals and the organization of the state, we shall look to the Nordic model in general, and the Swedish in particular.

Over the last century, in contrast to the United States, which has maintained a less generous system, Europeans have developed expansive welfare states. Compared to other European countries, the Nordic region not only has progressive welfare systems but also the highest levels of social protection, social capital, and social cohesion. However, since the 1970s, the Swedish state has emerged as a novel kind of public authority, one that is less focused on implementing political decisions and more concerned with the impact of individuals along with their ties with the state. Increasingly, the strong state and its institutions have shifted from being a “neutral” tool of democratic government to being a creator of social institutions and relationships, which are often substantially more powerful than conventional political parties. The infrastructural perspective is also useful in that it enables us to place the emphasis on social institutions wherein people reside and play a key role in guaranteeing the reproduction of values, norms, and relationships, as well as how we comprehend and legitimize the social institutions themselves.

Since the 1970s, the centralist and rationalist political cultures have changed in profound ways. Some of the compelling reasons include the implementation of fewer national and comprehensive political reform projects, critique of rationalism, the weakened role of experts in the inquiry process, central planning and the ramifications on public debate, diminished opportunities for agencies to direct governance, greater local variation, and decentralization of policy areas. Is this emblematic of the continued weakening of the strong-state model? It is beyond the scope of this post to adequately answer this question. However, generally speaking, what assumes importance is the evolution of the agencies’ changing roles, from having the primary responsibility of the execution of welfare policy through regulations, inspections, and recommendations, to concentrating on infrastructure elements. The ubiquitous international political climate of circumspection with regard to the rational model of the social and political regime has also affected the Nordic welfare policy and governance. The demands for local influence, decentralization, and freedom of choice supplanted the importance of standard national norms and central planning.

Challenges were being thrown at the belief in the possibility to shape society via structural reforms and central planning. A driving force in this process was the official investigation in the Swedish Government Official Report that profoundly questioned the political culture of the “strong state”. Underscoring the collectivistic orientation of Nordic political culture in an international context, the investigation utilized a “community-centered” democratic model for defining the political culture typified by the dominance of central social objectives, majority rule, and administrative planning. In response, a more individualist-oriented model of democracy was proposed, with individual rights and protection against majoritarian decision-making. In addition, the investigation showed that large Swedish groups felt powerless about the large publicly controlled systems entrenched in myriad political areas, including health and childcare. To that end, the sense of irony about a strong state was evident; namely, that collectivistically organized democratic administration had rendered individuals powerless, in contrast to the ideal and widely accepted contours of politics.

The state’s infrastructure perspective can be referred to as a partial answer to this question. Notably, the maintenance of social order and shaping of the relationship between citizens and the state requires more than the coercive and symbiotic role of the police, courts, and so forth. Additionally, the state was responsible for creating and maintaining the often-invisible influence that legitimizes the existing order while also shaping individuals’ daily lives. This particular viewpoint posits that the church, universities, and semi-governmental and governmental organizations undertook the responsibility for a significant portion of the work required to maintain and reproduce the existing structures.

State authority is known to have always played an important role in maintaining as well as reproducing state doctrine, albeit to different degrees. Nevertheless, this development has catalyzed the establishment of numerous authorities that primarily concentrate on infrastructural impact. The ombudsman institutions are poignant instances of organizations whose main responsibility is to track and advocate for their respective areas. As a case in point, the Swedish Employment Agency was one of the earliest examples of a state authority that utilized a variety of ideological means to legitimize labor market policy. The Public Health Institute, the general directors of the Higher Education Agency, and the Youth Board have all stated that shaping public opinion is one of their primary responsibilities, thus exemplifying the state administration’s infrastructural strength. These government agencies mainly generate ideological campaigns to serve definitive purposes.

For ombudspersons, access to legal instruments is limited, as evidenced by the Equality Ombudsman’s numerous losses in wage discrimination cases heard in the Labor Court. Thus far, almost no employers have been found guilty of ethnic discrimination in the workplace. However, the potential role of ombudspersons in the formation of an ideology cannot be ruled out. Their strong dependence on it denotes a way to shape societal values, norms, and relationships. Ombudspersons participate in public debates, write debate articles and opinion pieces, make media statements, and distribute press releases. Their active role in shaping public opinion is also evidenced in other tangible ways, including the prolific publication of newspapers and magazines. As a result, they act as formal interpreters and institutional representatives of their respective interest groups.

The infrastructural perspective is known to modify the conception of the role of the state, albeit moderately. These administrative institutions spend a substantial amount of time shaping the government. In addition to participating in public debate and launching information campaigns to persuade citizens of the merits of government decisions, they also exert influence on the government. The extensive function of public agencies is not confined to developing and enforcing the political decisions made in a democratically elected regime while also playing a role in decision-making.

Is it possible to develop a better understanding of the infrastructure approach by taking the crisis of the political party into consideration? A decline has been observed in membership rates, levels of participation, and commitment. Pervasive complacency and a palpable sense of powerlessness stem from losing hope in political participation. The public sees many political parties as entities that lack vision and have a penchant for being reactive rather than proactive. If public administration is now responsible for forming new ideas and building the narrative for an ideological debate, this gives rise to the following question: are political parties still necessary? In wake of the aforementioned development, the state apparatus is regarded as a closed arena for political power and ideological struggles between the many aspects of the state as opposed to a democratic governance tool that is responsible for implementing social reform. In case they obtain voter support, political parties no longer serve as a forum for ideological programs and ideas to be developed and implemented by a loyal state administration. On the contrary, the role of parties is becoming increasingly pliable in an attempt to gain acceptance for ideological platforms developed by the infrastructure state along with its representatives, such as academics, researchers, and officials.

With the deterioration in parties’ ties to people and general grounding in civil society, the effort to fortify their standing through consolidation of the state is apparent. For this reason, the public debate has been embedded in the state, leading to confusion about the role of public authority and ideological production. Under these circumstances, what is the role of the political party? The theory of political parties’ democratic functions insists they should not be viewed as mere receivers of the preexisting popular will. Instead, developing the ideologies that make up a popular political will has been deemed crucial. The growing might of the state’s infrastructure power has turned this on its head by establishing the contrasting principle, as per which the populace’s compliance with state wishes leads to democracy.

Novel authorities and central agencies have been set up over the past few decades. Although a significant portion of the authorities established in the 1970s had closed linkages with the laws they were supposed to implement, this was done only among a small percentage in the subsequent two decades. The results concerning the qualitative differences remain unknown or nebulous due to reasons that can be considered apparent. There has been a qualitative shift as several organizations founded in the 1990s are now devoting nearly all their attention to tasks related to infrastructure. Increasingly, governance is being implemented by forming ideologies, rather than by means of direct governance through laws, regulations, and financial instruments.

The theory of democracy is being profoundly affected by the changing nature of the Nordic model with a strong central state, especially given that the functions and roles of administrative bodies are enmeshed with political decision-making. In the wake of this development, it would be imprudent to see the state merely as an instrument for democratic governance, i.e., social reforms’ implementation; instead, the state must also be seen as having its own area of infrastructural power. These institutional alterations impact both the political as well as social culture, where the individual, the individual concerning the state, and collective life (along with the concomitant shared common values) are (re)shaped.

In the aftermath of the recent 2022 elections in Sweden, many researchers have observed that political participation in elections has reduced from just over 90% by the mid-70s to just over 80% in 2022. While not many democracies are able to attain the ideal of democracy, one viewpoint asserts that the government should act in consonance with the wishes of the populace. However, the increasingly potent force of the infrastructural state impels us to examine the ideal from the other end of the spectrum; does it aim to ensure that the public will is in consonance with the political decisions of the state?




















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