Published January 9, 2009
Egill Helgason has hosted Iceland’s main political debate show (Silfur Egils, now showing on RÚV) for many years, and is often cited as the nation’s top commentator on political and social issues.
Haukur Már Helgason:
Haukur Már Helgason is a philosopher and founding editor of web-based “communist newspaper” Nei. (www.this.is/nei), which he started in October. Since its inception, Nei. has been growing in popularity and is thought to present a clear, concise view of the radical side of current debates.
Pawel Bartoszek is a mathematician and teacher at Reykjavík University. For the last decade, Pawel has been highly involved in Icelandic political debates and has written several articles and columns for respected right/libertarian leaning web site Deiglan.com. A native of Poland, Pawel has been an Icelander since 1988.
The Discussion Commences
Haukur Már Helgason: Looking back, it’s interesting to note that if you look through all the front-pages of Fréttablaðið [Iceland’s “free” newspaper], they never tell the main story there. There was never a day where it said: “Glitnir nationalised!” or “Landsbankinn bankrupt!” or “Kaupþing falls!” They rather featured interpretations of who did what and why – always a postscript or comments, fitted to bend and shape our perception of the news – rather than the actual story. The way Icelandic media works, it never tells “the story”. We could look at the covers of all of it over the past year and not see a single straight story.”
Egill Helgason: We are now faced with the fact that the year 2008 will be perceived as a turning point in Icelandic history; it might even prove to have been one in world history, we still cannot tell if we now face the biggest world depression since 1929. If this turns out to be the case, it is likely true what they say, that Iceland served as a canary in the coal mine. We are witnessing the collapse of a lot of things we believed to be good and true, and at the same time the end of a certain prevalent ideology in Icelandic society.
Pawel Bartoszek: Are you referring to neo-libertarianism? I definitely want that to be over, so we can go back to libertarianism.
EH: I am saying that the ideology of the Independence Party, as it has been run for past decades, is over for now. All the party credo – privatisation of state assets and banks, opposition to the EU – all of it is gone. And now we are seeing the privatised-nationalised banks being returned to their former owners, the ones that just lost them, by way of even more trickery. This is going to leave a gaping wound on Icelandic society – we are entering a society of bitterness, frustration and anger, a society of hatred that’s going to last for years, if not decades.
HMH: The anger running through Iceland today is a righteous one. Egill wasn’t a revolutionary before the collapse…
EH: I am not a revolutionary now, but we are going through a revolution. Not one where people throw around Molotov-cocktails, it is rather a revolution in people’s minds where everything that was once taken for granted is being questioned. If that isn’t a revolutionary state, I don’t know what is. At this point, it is important for people that justice is served and will prevail – nothing is worse than a failed, frustrated revolution…
PB: I would like to know what you are referring to in concrete terms, what sort of thought-revolution are we going through or in the need to go through?
EH: We cannot see the same parties owning society again. That is pertinent. We need to see a revolution in our party system, a revolution in our system of governance, a fair distribution of the wealth. At this time I could give a shit about the EU or whatever it is the Alliance Party is currently focused on. They are only avoiding talking about the troubles that are right in front of our noses right now. The EU is a straw man. Björgólfur Thor [Björgólfsson, businessman] proclaimed last April that he was waiting for Iceland to go on fire sale, these people are much smarter at business than the rest of us and it just might happen that they take everything from us at the drop of a hat, like they did in Russia. It could happen over Christmas, while we decorate our trees.
HMH: What we have now is a lot of people realising that the Independence Party was never working in their interest, like the rest of the Icelandic party system; it is the result of an inbred, nepotistic community, a corrupt power regime that has prevailed in Iceland since we were under the Danes. This was never a real democracy. The half of the nation that voted for the party or subscribed to its credo thought they were part of the deal, but they weren’t. The truck driver, the small grocer, those now face being left behind when the cut happened. There’s maybe not a communist revolution in the works, but there is a middle class out there that is getting ready to make itself heard.
PB: I must refute that Iceland was never a democratic state. We must realise the difference between states that have it really bad in every way and what has happened here, which is basically that the public is paying for that a lot of people who bought a lot of things they couldn’t afford. Let us not forget that capitalism has brought wealth, prosperity and democracy to a lot of nations that were previously ruled by iron fists. Politicians now show up and start distributing stuff, lowering overdraft interest by law – it’s easy to fall back into the kind of state where it’s impractical to save money. We can always print money to calm the public, and I have reason to be concerned about this, there are a lot of signs that this is about to happen. A lot of right-wingers won’t behave in a very right-wing way in the coming seasons, not that they’ve been doing a good job of it thus far.
EH: These aren’t just investment groups, insurance companies and airlines that are on the line right now. It isn’t “abstract money” we’re talking about. These people have been conning their way into the energy companies, for instance. All of our society’s resources and valuables are at stake now, everything past generations have built up. As for what’s going to happen in 2009, the situation will be grim. I understand the state treasury is empty, and we can foresee an emergency when state bonds reach their due date. The banks have been dried up. There is no one to tell us how bad the situation is, the government certainly won’t. And these cutbacks the government is starting to make now, they are only a small percentage of what’s to come.
HMH: I was reading through Davíð [Oddsson] and Árni [Mathiesen]’s request to the IMF. It says they plan to buffer the effects over the first year, to create a consensus. So the full shock won’t hit us all at once. To make people less doubtful, to lessen opposition to their plans. It’s a clever strategy.
PB: I am not as worried as you are. The coming times will prove bountiful for a certain type of person, those that didn’t go on a spending spree during the inflation period. They have lots of money; the interest rate is high…
HMH: I certainly didn’t go on a spending spree, and I don’t have anything to show for it.
EH: I have a decent salary, but it has still decreased in value by 40 percent.
PB: It may have decreased in value, but now you can buy real estate for a lot less than before. I fail to understand why we should bail out everyone that made bad decisions during the inflation period. There were lots of people that behaved in an insensible manner, and we are paying for it now.
– Do you believe that any of our 63 MPs could have prevented what happened? Could things have gone differently under different control? And do you see any of them successfully steering us back to safety?
EH: The conditions for the downfall were created in an unholy alliance of politics and business; politicians could see that the businessmen had all but taken over and were considered society’s big shots. And they didn’t want to be left behind. This is why keep hearing more and more stories of politicians that were involved in shady deals on the stock market. They admired the businessmen and thus stood by gaping as they went about their business, a whole lot of “prosperity politicians” satisfied by going through the motions of empty “prosperity politics”. Now it is hard to tell what will happen to these parties – currently empty shells – it depends on when we vote, whether it’s in April or September or in 2011. Now we might have a chance for people to enter these parties and take them over, but I am not sure that will work. Their current elites probably aren’t much interested in new people. New parties could of course be founded, but they are always at the risk of becoming terribly populist organisations. We see from experience that new parties also have the tendency to attract small, vocal groups that divert the energy. The anti-abortion alliance people are always the first to show up.
PB: It is also very financially difficult. The current system only works in your favour if you’ve had a party for forty years, one that’s built a steady foundation and owns real estate and the like. Support for fledgling parties is very limited and difficult to attain.
HMH: Politicians have lost all connection to the public, and the public has lost all belief that they can participate in politics. A lot of people resigned from the Alliance Party when they realised it was different from the parties it was built of; that the common member wasn’t expected to participate in forming the party politics, only needed as props for their yearly national conventions. I think people don’t know or understand how to participate in politics from the ground up these days, and speaking for myself, I am not sure I am interested in participating in them myself.
EH: But isn’t it the duty of good citizens to do something, in times like these?
PB: I don’t know of any state on Earth where the general public is genuinely pleased with the politicians representing them. They might like their local government, or their state’s representative, but overall politicians seem to be a class that’s easily corrupted. They aren’t likeable types, either. At this time, I can’t think of anything a politician could do to gain popularity, save for resigning.
–What about other events of the year? Like Reykjavík City politics. Do you care to comment on them at all?
EH: City politics? At this time? We might as well talk about the polar bear fiasco.
- Where? Kaffi Hressó, right before Christmas
- The Mood: Generally angry and contemplative