Published February 18, 2016
Being an anarchist can be a thoroughly depressing exercise. On the one hand, your principles yearn for a perfect world—a “system” where violence isn’t necessary, where people have the means to work together and live with dignity, and where individual people are given freedom and treated with respect.
By Jón Gnarr
Translated by Andrew Brown
Melville House, 2014
On the other hand, nothing in the world matches up to your idea of how things should be. Rather than being merely an imperfect democratic system, the whole of society is a total fucking mess, with all wealth and power centralised in the hands of a few people. Being an anarchist means simultaneously existing as one of the world’s biggest pessimists, and one of its biggest optimists. It can mean constant disappointment. It is emotionally exhausting.
“The perfect system that has an answer to every problem and will put the world to rights just doesn’t exist,” former Reykjavík mayor Jón Gnarr argues in his new book, ‘Gnarr: How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland…’. His book is, ironically, a sort of attempt to answer this problem we anarchists have faced since time immemorial: how to start giving more of a shit by giving less of a shit; by meeting “insults with courtesy,” “ill will with indulgence,” and “stubbornness with tolerance.” How, in other words, to ensure “the good is always getting stronger.”
A punk comedian, an anarchist mayor, Jón has always been a man of contradictions. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the haphazard structure of the book itself. One minute, we’re treated to a rare interview with Jón’s wife, Jóga, one of the major forces behind the scenes of the Best Party—the next minute, Jón is talking about what he likes about Facebook. It feels as if we’re almost given a glimpse into Jón’s own way of thinking. The structure is messy, the ideas frequently silly, much of it seemingly irrelevant, but all of it combines to paint a picture of a man, this outcast, this misfit, who believes in nothing more than the power of human kindness.
It is this common thread—kindness—that ties the chaos of the book together. This is an honest book, one whose words you feel you can trust. You know that Jón is not lying when he says he has always identified with the rejects—such as the garbagemen, the disabled, or the immigrants—because he’s always been one. We know this because the book is not just a collection of his ideas, but a memoir in the truest sense. It is, in parts, a deeply personal account of his own struggles with acceptance. He is dismissed as a “retard” by his family and his school. He is dubbed “the Clown” by his political opposition in the Independence Party. Throughout his life, he is ostracised by those living and thinking within systems in which there is never a place for him.
Yet, he never fights back. At no point does he treat anyone with contempt, but as people who believe in the idea of a perfect system—systems which can never fit everything into them, systems which have never fit him in. Instead, he lets it “wash over” him. He expresses this most concretely in his interpretation of the Taoist principle of wu wei, an action of “non-doing,” or non-intervention, which demands you never stoop to the level of an opponent, instead allowing them to exhaust themselves and to knock themselves off-balance through their own negative momentum.
To return to anarchism, then: from the very first page of the book, Jón is firmly against the dream of a perfect system, of the perfect box that will fit everything within just right. People are angry and unhappy, not because the world is chaotic and imperfect, but because they strive to impose a perfect order onto the chaotic, imperfect world around them. It’s not just the teachers, the parents, and The Man who are guilty of this, but also the punks, commies, and the anarchists too. Jón is not an anarchist because he believes anarchism to be the perfect system, he says, “but because the perfect system does not exist.”
Jón’s anarchism is thus not utopian, because it holds that utopia can never exist. His anarchism revolves around finding one’s centre in the river of bullshit rather than swimming against the current—and about helping those drowning within it to find their own balance. His anarchism is an anti-ism, a worldview opposed to big, clever theories and boxes of ideas, something that is not just about shouting “fuck the system,” but quietly detaching from the idea of systems themselves through respect, love, and kindness. Herein lies the answer to the entire contradiction that was The Best Party. How can an anarchist possibly become a mayor and remain an anarchist?
Tens of thousands of years ago, it was the politically sceptical Taoist sages who proved the greatest advisers to the kings and lords of ancient China. Today, little has changed. Opposition to getting involved in politics is a byproduct of the systematic mindset—and so is the belief that politics holds all the answers. Moving past binary, rigid thinking allows us to realise that, through embracing contradiction, the biggest sceptics of the system are also the most capable at ensuring things work for the better of everyone in it.
This book is a love letter to the misfits, the losers, the pirates, and the clowns—and the powerful, dangerous idea that those we think have the least to say might just have the most to offer.
What Happened? Jón Gnarr Explains Himself, A Little
First, nobody thought comedian Jón Gnarr’s joke party would actually make it to the ballot for the 2010 Reykjavík municipal elections. Then, nobody thought comedian Jón Gnarr’s joke party would attract a significant number of voters. Then, nobody thought comedian Jón Gnarr would step up to the role of mayor. Then, nobody thought Mayor Jón Gnarr would last a full term in office. Then, nobody thought Mayor Jón Gnarr wouldn’t run for a second term.
Clearly, nobody has been wrong about a lot of things pertaining to comedian Mayor Jón Gnarr.