Published October 7, 2011
It is funny how things can turn around. For decades, Iceland languished in neoliberal hell, with signs of opposition few and far between. Meanwhile the opposition to the neoliberal order of things grew all over the world—with massive protests in Seattle, Genoa and elsewhere—and the beginnings of a world-wide anti-globalisation movement represented by the World Social Forum, first held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001. Almost nobody in Iceland did or said anything to support these powerful movements against the neoliberal order, with the exception of the brave Saving Iceland organisation. Even the considerable activism surrounding the anti-imperialist campaigns against American military presence in Iceland seemed to die completely down in around 1990. Neoliberalism reigned, Iceland supported the Iraq invasion in 2003 and nobody said or did anything.
In 2008, everything suddenly changed. The Icelandic banks collapsed, and out of nothing there grew an immensely powerful protest movement, leading to the collapse of the ideological hegemony of neoliberal order in Iceland. It was symbolised by the January events of 2009, when saucepans and pots were taken into use by protesters, who drummed the right wing neoliberal government out of office in the last week of January. Suddenly everyone and her brother was involved in organising some sort of protest, with many thousands turning up at rallies in the centre of town on a regular basis, and hundreds or thousands of people involved in organising alternatives to the prevailing neoliberal order.
Even the president of the country, who had been one of the cheerleaders of neoliberalism, suddenly turned into an invaluable ally of the protest movement against the financial system, enabling two national referendums on the Icesave issue. Under the leadership of Eva Joly a criminal investigation into the whole neoliberal financial scam of the nineties and noughties was organised, and a very thorough investigation on the causes of the collapse was initiated by the Icelandic parliament. There was even a Constitutional Assembly, which was meant to write a new constitution for the country.
Right wing, left wing: both neoliberals
To be sure, instead of the rightwing neoliberal government a leftwing neoliberal government ascended to power after parliamentary elections in April 2009. That was surely not the intention of the saucepan revolutionary movement, and the situation in Iceland has been tense since. An important part of the original protest movement has been paralysed, as it has seen it as its duty to defend the “left” government against what it sees as attacks organised by the right. So the most radical part of the original saucepan protesters, those who are of the opinion that the “left” government is just another neoliberal government, has found tactical allies among the right wing parties, and this alliance has had some victories, like the rejection of the Icesave treaties.
But the Icelandic protest movement against neoliberalism has been powerful enough to inspire people outside Iceland. Yes, indeed, people abroad have really been inspired by Iceland! This was first evident around the Icesave referendum on March 6, 2010. The international anti-globalisation movement followed it closely, for example the Jubilee movement, the international Attac movement and the Tax Justice Network.
Congratulations rained on Icelandic activists after the Icesave treaty was rejected, the so-called Icesave II treaty, wherein Icelandic taxpayers were supposed to pay large sums of money to the citizens of the Netherlands and the UK because of the collapse of the Icelandic bank Landsbankinn. Icelandic taxpayers refused to take responsibility for the wheelings and dealings of the international financial oligarchs, and this was widely admired by anti-neoliberal activists everywhere.
But there was more to come. In 2010, rumours started to circulate on the Internet among activists, especially in those former provinces of the Roman Empire comprising the present day lands of Spain, Portugal and France, that there had been some sort of a quiet revolution in Iceland. This revolution was supposed to have been almost systematically shut out of the world media, in order not to present a possible model for revolution in other countries. These rumours appeared on French and Spanish websites, and at last they acquired some sort of critical mass. In December 2010 and January 2011, Attac Iceland started to receive a lot of questions about the quiet revolution in Iceland from members of Attac France and Attac Spain. Activists even started to visit Iceland to find out about the quiet revolution.
When Attac Iceland was slow to respond—and when it did it would not be ready to agree that there had been any sort of revolution in Iceland—it was pointed out by the international activists that the Icelandic banks had been nationalised, that the government had been forced from power, that the governors of the Central Bank of Iceland had been replaced, that Iceland had shown true grit by the rejection of the Icesave treaty. All of which was true, but Attac Iceland has not interpreted this as a revolution, even if it certainly can be viewed as a very powerful and successful protest movement, one of the most powerful popular responses to the collapse of the neoliberal order, and up until 2011 certainly the most powerful. And quiet it was not, as those activists who have come from Spain, Portugal and France to Iceland to investigate have found out.
Iceland as a model of revolt
Then in December 2010, Tunisia erupted in revolt. Egypt followed, and the world watched in amazement as country after country in the Arab world arose in revolution against the established order of American imperialist rule and the rule of US supported despots. There were certainly some references to the Icelandic revolt in these movements. And in May 2011 Spain erupted, with the M-15 movement and the Indignados movement forming as a powerful protest wave against the neoliberal order. Here the references to the Icelandic movement were numerous and quite visible, with public squares in Palma, Mallorca, renamed after Iceland in honour of the quiet revolution, the Icelandic flag being waved on numerous occasions and Facebook groups organised in honour of the Icelandic movement.
This was certainly a rather dramatic turnaround in the position of Iceland in relation to the neoliberal world order. Suddenly Iceland had turned from a model of the quiet, obedient neoliberal outpost, to become a model of protest movements around the world against this same neoliberalism.
The revolution that nobody wants to talk about
Then in the summer of 2011 the indignados started coming to Iceland themselves, organising TV-crews in order to document the Icelandic revolution. And, indeed, they did not find a quiet revolution: In the words of Portuguese document film maker Miguel Marques, who was here in August and extensively documented the activities of the Icelandic movement, the Icelandic revolution was anything but quiet. Another crew came from Spain and interviewed the Icelandic activists, and in October there will be a Venezuelan crew documenting Icelandic activism for the big South American TV network teleSUR.
So, for the Icelandic activists and anti-neoliberalist, the situation is a bit awkward. When finally Iceland produces something worthy of admiration of the international activist community, the activist groups in Iceland have been reluctant to admit to it being what the foreigners perceive it to be. Why is this? Why is the powerful protest movement in Iceland not lauded or presented in a positive light by the Icelandic activists? This is mostly because of the political situation in Iceland.
On one hand, the media, mostly right wing, the academics, mostly right wing or centre left neoliberals, and others of the talking and writing classes have very limited interest in promoting the Icelandic saucepan revolution. On the other hand many in the protest movement now support a neoliberal “left” government in the vain hope that it will eventually, in the distant future, maybe deliver on something of value, and this supports hinders any positive evaluation of the protest movement after the ascend of the “left” government. The radical parts of the protest movement do not have a positive evaluation of the results of the movement, exactly because the results of the parliamentary elections in April 2009 were that the neoliberal dominance in politics continued. So nobody seems interested in taking credit for the very real and positive results of the Icelandic protest movement 2008–2011.