Peltomäki Mikko

Maan keskellä Mammonan vuori - Suomalaisen yrittämisen henki

A mountain of Mammon in the Midst of the Land - The development of the Finnish entrepreneurial spirit

English summary

Before the 12th century people's livelihoods in Finland were most likely decided on the basis of their family origin, physical condition, gender and age. People lived by hunting and fishing and later by working on the land. They also engaged in trade whenever the opportunity arose. Magical powers might have had their significance, but there was never a need to have specific gods for different occupations in Finnish folklore. If a man or woman was hardworking and therefore also able to support their family, they also gained value in the marriage and labour markets. There was no special need to justify activities, as the work itself and the results of the work spoke for themselves.

Moreover, Christianity proclaimed that despite their varying sources of livelihood all people were equal in the eyes of the Lord - at least until the Final Judgement, when people would be weighed up according to their merits. This mode of thinking suited those who had been endowed with worldly goods, or those who had by chance received the birthright to a farm that was passed down as an inheritance. Therefore, the divine 'spirit of the land' consisted mainly of the spirit of the land-owning farmer and the protective spirit of his spouse. It was the farmer's duty to work hard, keep his people in the fear of God, and pay his tithes to the church. The church on the other hand, made it an article of faith to be content with one's own lot and lead a modest life. The vast countryside concealed increasing numbers of the landless in hovels on the farm, and as a result of this invisibility the idea of a portion assigned by God was never seriously questioned.

However, the common people also wanted to acquire wealth, which was only possible through trading and investing the wealth gained. The clergymen and officials had similar ambitions, and they did not quite know how to respond to trading. The first poets and authors writing in Finnish, who were often at the same time clergymen, belittled trading in their speeches and writings. The common people however, paid no heed to theirs words, and therefore they were excluded from trading, or at least they were permanently assigned the role of the party that profits least from trading - through debt, drink, vagrancy laws, compulsory labour and poor relief, which also forced the beneficiaries to work. The burghers, the nobility, the clergy and the officials governed the trading practices and places. There was very little money on the market, but mainly trade was in goods and services. Exchanging these goods and services was not considered to be an activity that stimulated the country's economy, but rather to represent the portion that was assigned by God to each and every one. This meant that both the immediate needs of the common people and the need of the elite to make a show of their wealth could be satisfied.

This was the prevailing ethos until the final years of the 19th century, when the increasing population and tightening competition brought changes in the prevailing state of affairs. Swedish rule was replaced by Russian rule in 1809, and gradually people began to dream of a sovereign state called Finland. Compulsory labour was also abolished and the poor started to seek opportunities in the towns. The situation changed so that even people with wealthy backgrounds could no longer take it for granted that inherited wealth or a career as an official would guarantee them financial security and a stable life. There was thus a need for new sources of livelihood, and these were subsequently found within industry and trade.

When trading was opened to all, the rhetoric surrounding work also changed. Instead of being an obligation that forces people to stay in one place, work began to be considered as a vehicle of ‘progress’ that would change the world. The God who decided on a person’s birth and assigned him his lot in life could no longer be regarded as the Corpus Mysticum of hard work. The place of God in this respect was now taken by factors that were constantly growing and developing: Finland, technology, science and the factory or the enterprise. These factors were no longer associated with growing crops, but rather with making money. Thus the idea of “mammon”, or earthly goods, had to lose its negative connotations of enticing and sinful luxury, and its place was taken by the monolithic figure of the national economy. Regardless of the form it took in public, entrepreneurship was presented as a dedicated activity geared towards benefiting the national economy. Alongside the idea that people should be satisfied with their lot in life - even with poverty - there emerged the guiding principle of the upstarts: that of producing 'the greatest good'.

The term 'the common good' had already been in use in the 18th century, but at that time the great merchants had been involved in a power struggle with the Crown and with one another. The common good had therefore only been debated in a small circle, and it was not intended for the ears of the common people. At the end of the 19th century, however, people appealed to the common good in public to justify the production of goods, the writing of books, trading or the establishment of Finnish-run enterprises and banks. In addition, this was also a time when Finland's contacts with Europe were expanding, trade was on the increase, and thanks to the timber industry, the countryside was also now receiving its share of the inflowing capital. As a result, people started to see life in a different light. Physical effort was still valued, but at the same time the upcoming factory owners, traders and authors writing in Finnish, began to call for a different view of work: as the creation of something new. The clergymen stood aside, and as the craftsmen had done, the factory owners also founded newspapers that wrote about needs, consumption and development. Finland was being converted into a sovereign, self-sufficient state, inhabited by a united, obedient, yet enterprising and productive people. Moreover, it was not permitted to look down on any activity, even trading, nor were earthly goods to be regarded as vanity.

Technology also developed to such an extent that it was possible to have a profitable manufacturing industry. The first 'entrepreneurs' in industry were foreigners, adventurous businessmen. They sought raw material, labour, sources of power and good transport connections. It was these foreign businessmen who brought major capital to Finland, and this also profited the most astute Finnish businessmen in one way or another. Furthermore, as economic development accelerated, the patriotic Fennomans, who hoped to earn their living from politics or from a renewed cultural life, were seeking grounds for cultural and national reforms. Writers also wanted their source of livelihood to be considered as work. The idea of a divine plan that stressed being content with one's allotted station in life and remaining in that station was inconsistent with these aspirations.

In this new era it was considered necessary to talk about work, goods and needs, but to keep silent about money and acquiring wealth. Nevertheless, a goal was needed for hard work. The goal had to be one step closer to earth than Heaven, which was by now no longer credible, but preferably it had to be equally unfathomable and undefined in shape. The aspiration of living a good life so as to gain entry to Heaven was replaced by that of increasing the common national reserve. This activity had neither a final point nor a defined shape. Everything was considered to be work, as long as the activity could be justified by the common good and by constantly adding to it.

Work was raised to an almost divine status, but this did not change the fact that it presented itself in many forms. There was work from which one gained profit for oneself and there was work whose profit had to be shared; there was work that was always there and there was work that came to an end with an economic recession; there was work that was paid and there was work that one did out of the goodness of one's heart, and so on. This abstract concept of work, however, helped to justify the fact that not all of these activities were necessary according to the old standards, and that not everyone could become rich, even through hard work. Focusing on work alone had different implications for the poor and for the rich. Whereas for the poor it entailed being content with one's lot without questioning it, for the rich it was a virtue, a price to be paid for being wealthy. However, this price no longer included as before the duty to personally show charity towards the poor in the form of material aid. Instead of being responsible to his neighbour or to God, a man and an entrepreneur was now only responsible to society or to the economy – and the sole purpose of society and the economy was to grow and develop, to amass the common wealth.

Man was considered to be the servant of society, and the idea was that a person's worth should only be defined through his ability to work, with no regard for inherited status, wealth or appearance. This mode of thinking, which put people on a more equal footing, attracted writers as well and seemed to require a parallel concept of a national reserve. After all, once our immediate needs have been met, work only has significance in the sense of amassing the common reserve of wealth.

It was considered necessary to keep this common wealth hidden, and the people who held the purse strings during Swedish rule considered national wealth to be equal to the public treasury. Individual people owned mainly land and buildings. These were easy to manage, as - unlike capital - they could not escape abroad or be divided into small pieces that were easily hidden. However, capital was mobile by nature and businessmen, true to their nature, were professionals in controlling the movements of capital. As the monetary economy expanded, those in power started to lose their grip, since financial independence was now possible for an increasing number of people. In addition, competition between the entrepreneurs kept their attention away from matters of state and provided a broader tax base - as long as the bourgeoisie remembered to fill the public treasury as well as their own pockets. As trading became more intense it was increasingly difficult to control capital. In the days of Johan Vilhelm Snellman, during the second half of the 19th century, the national treasury was still considered equivalent to the state, but already in the writings of Volter Kilpi in the early decades of the 20th century, the national reserve was seen as something that was ‘free and unattached’ by nature. It was not only economists who campaigned for the building and strengthening of the nation state; the institutions that inspired Weber to talk about ‘faceless machinery’ and the ‘iron cage’ were also in favour of a strong nation state. Bureaucracy was based on rhetoric and a machine-like insensibility, but as the variety of available jobs increased, the image of the machine came to be more widely used. It was argued that man not only builds machinery in order to produce the goods he wants, but that he also functions like a machine.

Once the basic needs had been met, 'oiling of the machinery' was required more often, and that meant influencing other people. Tradesmen were already familiar with this skill, but as political activity increased and newspapers became more common, people began to place more emphasis on the way language was used. The questions of what constitutes a useful activity or a necessary institution and what is the right direction for the future, were under constant public scrutiny. In this debate a new concept of entrepreneurship took shape. The new concept combined the new sources of livelihood with the old ethos: trading and business were also to be considered as work, and work was the Corpus Mysticum that, much like God, was able and still is able to justify a seemingly endless variety of activities.

An enterprising person was not only under the obligation to build up the Finnish nation, but he also had to learn to take the right attitude to the products of his work. The goods produced were no longer simply bread or essential tools, but more and more often they were goods that were not absolutely necessary according to the old standards. People were tempted to purchase goods both because the neighbours had acquired them and also because they had a few extra coins in their own purse. This is where clergymen and economists disagreed. The goods produced by industry and people's aspiration to acquire them were still considered a sinful luxury, but at the same time it was acknowledged that this was a sign of progress and beneficial to the national economy. Consumption was no longer considered to be a luxury that depleted the national reserve, but rather it was seen as adding to it. It was also argued that the future of Finland is no longer determined solely by God and the Czar, but by the education of the Finnish people and the ever increasing needs resulting from this education.

Tradesmen and clergymen were accustomed to appeal to people's needs, whether material or spiritual. However, both had to remain silent about the underlying prerequisite for their work: the ability to make a convincing appearance and to speak persuasively. As trading became more common and competition grew tougher, those people who were accustomed to build their success on physical strength and manual skills also began to need those abilities. Thus at the end of the 19th century, even the craftsmen were forced to think in terms of ‘influencing other people’ and ‘qualities other than the traditional idea of masculinity’, which were closely connected with the ethos of the new era. In other words, it was argued that these two should now be regarded as factors that are stronger than tradition and birth. They should be regarded as forces that would help to build an independent nation.

The wealthiest craftsmen in towns took a leaf out of the factory owners' book. As a result, work was split into stages, the buying and selling of labour was no longer controlled, and the career opportunities previously offered by apprenticeships began to dwindle. The craftsmen who were the least prepared to face increasing competition disappeared from the market, but the risks brought by the rise of industry also threatened the old bourgeoisie families and the first adventurous factory owners. The upstarts who wanted to take their place took their incentive not only from capital, gained in one way or another, but also from a spirit of nationalism. Both the old dominant bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia came to be referred to as idlers of foreign blood who were a burden to the economy. It was argued that in order to be free of this burden, determined, honest and constructive Finnish work was required: the nation needed 'enterprise'.

The factory owner was in a position to present himself as the builder of the national economy and developer of the new technology. It was also easy to see the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, who were of foreign descent, and who were criticised for being deceitful in trade or for leading an unproductive life of leisure and luxury, as the enemy of the factory owner. On the other hand, the cottager, who worked himself to the bone, but remained poor nevertheless, was not qualified either to be the symbolic figure of the new era. So the craftsmen and other 'small businessmen' sought to find the moral middle ground in a middle-class attitude towards life. This middle-class attitude was quite closely related to the spirit of the land: the idea was that one should aspire to earn money through work, but that one should not enjoy the wealth it brought. In other words, any amount of money that was left over after the necessities had been acquired, should be invested back into work, to make work easier and more effective.

However, the spirit of the land was contradictory to the entrepreneurial ethos of the new era. After all, according to the philosophy associated with the spirit of the land, wealth was not useful to a farmer in the sense that he could not use it to gain a greater yield from his land. On the contrary, the philosophy of the spirit of the land argued that wealth was used to achieve a life of ease and material comforts, and that it was morally questionable because of this. As trade in timber and dairy products got under way, farmers grew wealthy, but they did not raise the wages of the people who worked on the land, nor did they sell their fields once they had been tilled. Thus the landless had no share in the prosperity of the new era. As a result, the factory owners got what they wanted: a large workforce that was used to hard work and a simple life.

Nevertheless, the factory owners wanted to choose their employees and to be able to hire people when they needed them. Therefore it was necessary to accept freedom of movement and the freedom to engage in a trade in order to stimulate enterprise, but also because industry needed people to sell its products. The common people selling their handicrafts could not seriously compete with industry, and therefore in practice, the freedom to exercise a trade signified the freedom for the poor to engage in small-scale trading simply to survive. However, even in this small trade many unofficial agreements restricting the freedom of competition soon emerged. In spite of this, it was still possible for an enterprising man to be successful in trading, to accumulate capital and to expand his business. However, very few people from a peasant background managed to become prominent businessmen, while the poor and the landless were even less likely to succeed.

Despite the growing activity of the business world, wealth was still unequally divided at the beginning of the 20th century. Increasing speculation in times of economic fluctuations led writers and journalists to criticise the morals of businessmen, while at the same time, literacy was increasing among the common people. The middle-class attitude towards work as a value in itself advocated by the craftsmen did not have wide support, and the search for the middle ground was interrupted by the Finnish civil war in 1918. In its aftermath, the handicrafts and trade organisations closed ranks with the victors, and the middle-class attitude towards life was forgotten. The countryside and the farm continued to be the model for entrepreneurship, and the farmer was the embodiment of private ownership. On the other hand, it was feared that the towns would grow too big and that irregular means of livelihood would spread; as a result even the poorest of the poor were to be kept dependent on the land.

However, not everyone wanted to stay in the fields or in the workshop. Some of these people began to make their voices heard, and the rising generation of writers in the late 1920's, known as 'Tulenkantajat' (Torch Bearers), took to praising technology and urban life instead of idealising the countryside in the traditional manner. At the same time industry was investing heavily, and in the aftermath of the civil war, it was not considered appropriate to criticise the failings of industrial production. In the town envisioned by the Torch Bearers there was no place for material want, the farmer as a strict master, or class conflict. The factory owners and engineers had a similar view of the world at that time, and at the beginning of the 1930's, modernity seemed to be embodied by the huge mechanised factory run by a Finnish workforce. Wealth increased, but it was unevenly distributed, and the spirit of the land, with its emphasis on the modest life, began to regain momentum during the years just before the Second World War.

The war brought industrialisation to a halt and the idea of managing with very little associated with the spirit of the land came into its own again. However, it was apparent that the countryside was beginning to be overpopulated, and the rebuilding of the towns appeared to present opportunities, also for small businesses. The rebuilding was, however, dominated by large-scale industry, and opportunities for entrepreneurship in the service trades were not yet opening up. In the countryside the pieces of land on offer were decreasing in size, and at the same time vocational schools were being built to prepare the young for jobs in industry. Once they had qualified they moved into the towns. However, in the towns they did not find the self-sufficient freedom brought by technology that the young generation of writers had envisaged. Instead, they encountered an atmosphere of industrialisation, rationalisation and organisation of labour. Work and working conditions were the objects of collective bargaining.

The spirit of the land, which extolled the virtues of private enterprise and private ownership, began to lose its buoyancy, not least because the farmers began to have access to public funds. The craftsmen, who were left without this access to the public purse, came to regard the state as the enemy: its actions seemed to lead to concentration of business and to state-controlled monopolies. In the period of trade delegations, many small businesses became terminally unprofitable, and therefore, by the end of the 1960's, the baby boom generation had to get used to earning their living as wage earners.

As wages increased and the purchasing power of the workforce grew, a business and a service sector developed alongside the industrial sector. Within these sectors, the line between the employer and the employee became blurred, and margins were small, and therefore concentration did not gain momentum. In this kind of work an entrepreneurial spirit was required, and in order to support trading, a certain kind of rhetoric was adopted. With the help of this rhetoric, 'influencing other people' and 'qualities other than the traditional features of masculinity' could finally be seen as real work, work that anyone could do. In other words, a new equivalent for the spirit of the land developed around enterprise. This was a rhetoric that emphasised private enterprise and other 'spiritual matters'. The increasingly refined forms of this rhetoric have, with the exception of the years of political turmoil at the end of the 1960's and the beginning of the 70's, dominated the public image of entrepreneurship in Finland.

I have now, on a general level and in a simplified form, outlined the background and the development of enterprise in Finland. Rather than being a joint venture, Finland can be seen as having a history of being a rather quarrelsome building site, which for a long time has been divided into the countryside, oriented towards the spirit of the land, and a more complex urban area. Both in the countryside and in the towns, people have acted in a way typical of the local way of life and under the conditions prevailing at the time. The image of the entrepreneur has also been consistent with these conditions.

The entrepreneurial spirit in Finland, the Protestant work ethic, is essentially based on the idea of amassing a common reserve of wealth. Depending on the situation at hand, rhetoric has also been used as an incentive. With the emergence of the nationalistic rhetoric, enterprise began to be seen as turning the wheels of the economy. Accumulating capital for the use of the future, still faceless, generations was presented as an activity that offered the mainly psychological rewards that Weber refers to.

However, instead of being free to amass wealth, many people are forced to stay where they are and content themselves with being a customer. Moreover, profitable activities have been protected in many ways. Thus there are always enough, if not more than enough, entrepreneurs in relation to the opportunities presented by industry. Intense competition has led to a situation where "progress " is seen as a stick rather than a carrot: in order to be able to maintain the same standard of living, one constantly has to work harder. Nevertheless, it can be argued that a new predominant rhetoric has developed around Finnish entrepreneurship, although, behind this new rhetoric there still remains fear - the fear of staying in one place. This is the worst-case scenario in the new era: it means being left behind in the race, but it is also morally unacceptable. It is only the present moment that makes enjoyment possible. A person who is unemployed, lazy, or has independent means is dangerous precisely because there is a threat that he will stand still: he may indulge in hobbies, enjoy nature, or simply relax. This person who 'gets off easily' is considered not only to be living at the expense of his fellow citizens, but also to be getting the 'easy ride' that was intended for future generations.

According to this strange ethic, the goal is something that is always forbidden and postponed into the future – the goal of 'having an easy life'. The gospel of self-denial that Karl Marx preached has nowadays - and in Finland this did not happen completely until the 1950's - lost all of its religious associations and has been attached to the idea of constant progress. At the same time, there has been a change in the rhetoric. The concept of entrepreneurship has shed all of its unnecessary burdens: first God, then nationalism, the spirit of the land, and finally the family and even children. These burdens have been replaced by a group of concepts that are as abstract as entrepreneurship and only related to one other. The function of these concepts is to affirm the belief that the whole can be controlled at least by rhetoric, and that work can and should be done even without a specific objective in mind. At the same time, our thoughts are moved away from the complicated, conflict-ridden present into the future, which is full of hope. This was, and still is, the function of all religions.

Because of competition, it is inevitable that in the future people will adopt gods and engage in sources of livelihood that are at the moment unknown or even considered morally questionable. However, the idea of a common reserve of wealth will always remain in the public consciousness, and as a result a single entrepreneur should not make himself too conspicuous. If he does not maintain a low profile, he provokes envy and an attitude closely related to the spirit of the land: he will be accused of being an upstart, exploitative and greedy. In Finland entrepreneurial spirit could therefore be summarised in the following way: entrepreneurship is allowed, but success is not.

Translated by Rosemary Mackenzie