Published July 17, 2009
It is always healthy for a society to go through a period of introspection and self-doubt, whatever the cause may be. The Germans did after World War Two, and decided to become a nation of pacifist nature lovers. The Americans did after Vietnam and Watergate and made some of the best movies known to man, until Reagan came along and dulled everyone again to the roaring chants of “USA, USA.” It’s their turn again now. The South Africans had their Truth and Reconciliation committee, to find out what really happened during apartheid. The Russians never quite did question themselves systematically after the collapse of the USSR, which is why their political life remains decidedly unhealthy to this day.
Iceland’s contribution to recent world history might not have quite the same body count, but it remains disastrous. This is our moment of doubt and pain. Future generations of Icelanders will probably never quite understand how almost the entire nation marched so eagerly off an arctic cliff. The usual suspects – the dark twins, Greed and Stupidity – are there to be found. But they don’t quite answer the question.
Iceland’s Ancien Regime
The problem in dealing with historical epochs is: How far do you go back to find the original cause of later effect, in this case an original sin of osrts. The one counter-argument one was always met with when criticizing the Boom was this: “So, do you want to go back to the old system?” No one did.
In the old system, party affiliation was everything. If you wanted to open up a business, get a loan, or even get a job, you had to belong to the right party. The Independence Party took care of theirs, so did the Progressives and to a lesser extent the Social Democrats. If you were a Socialist, you were pretty much screwed. Small wonder then that most people opted for the largest party, the one in the best position to dispense favours, however detrimental this might be to society as a whole.
Sure, Icelanders had equal rights to education. But once you got out of school and started paying back your loans, your education didn’t really matter. You had to know someone. In a small country, this usually meant a close relative. Iceland was only egalitarian on the outside.
Mare’s piss and gold risotto
As in most postcolonial societies, Icelanders in a position of power saw this as a means to dispense patronage to friends and relatives.
In 1994, Örnólfur Árnason wrote Bankabókin (The Bank Book), which tells of a familiar scenario: a group of Icelandic bankers sit around at London’s most exclusive gentleman’s club. One of them is spotted drinking the second most expensive champagne. “Why are you drinking that mare’s piss?” asks his colleague, holding a glass of the better type while buying all the working girls a round. The first banker, of course, upgrades.
If the disease won’t kill you, the cure will…
All this was expensed to the Icelandic public. One of the main rationales for privatisation was that privately owned banks would not be as wasteful of funds and positions would no longer be filled according to party lines. We all know how that went. The banks were given over to a handful of individuals, who moved from mare’s piss to gold drizzled risotto. Yet again, the public foots the bill.
As heroin was to morphine, privatisation turned out to be more deadly cure than the original disease. We would do best to be rid of both. It seems that Icelanders abroad always have to throw money in every direction to prove that they are no worse than the big city folk. If we really want to win their respect, we will have to change our habits.