Considering the vast size of the recent Icelandic consumption boom that peaked in 2007, it is remarkable how little attention it received as it was happening and how few real explanations have been offered for its emergence. There are virtually no scholarly studies of the origins and nature of Icelandic consumerism during the boom years, and very few critical analyses. Even the daily press paid remarkably little attention to the changes that were taking place in the consumption habits of Icelanders. It wasn’t really until 2007 that we encountered critical public discussion about consumerism in Iceland. And most of this public discussion was neither particularly deep nor enlightened.
“Real Icelanders” are consumers
It is not as if the rapidly growing consumption and shifting consumption patterns had gone unnoticed. When the question of consumerism was raised by politicians, it was in the context of environmentalism and was always framed as a global problem—Westerners in general had to consume less. There were occasional complaints from artists and academics, and when reading the “letters to the editor” published by the Icelandic newspapers one encounters an occasional reader complaining about materialism and consumerism. But these lonely voices only serve to highlight the absence of any kind of debate on the question. People grumbled and complained, but that’s all it ever amounted to. There was no real debate.
A closer look reveals some more sustained and serious attempts to critique or resist the advance of consumerism. There were a few groups that voluntarily withdrew from consumer society, making “buy nothing” pledges—vowing not to buy anything new, but instead rely on sharing or fixing things that broke. Or simply learning to go without. Some of these were even featured in the media. Within Icelandic youth culture we also find criticism of consumerism and consumer society. There was, for example, a strong anti-consumerist undertone in the “krútt” culture of the time. Bands like Sigur Rós, múm and Trabant presented a very critical view of consumerism, materialism and the anti-environmentalist policies of Icelandic authorities. Furthermore, a radical criticism of consumerism was central to the anarchist and radical environmentalist movements that formed around the protest against the hydro-electrical projects and the government’s heavy-industry policy.
In general, however, all of these impulses were met with indifference or scorn by the general population and the leading public intellectuals. Commentators ridiculed the “krútt movement” as empty and superficial, and environmentalists were branded as spoiled or even deluded middle-class children who were attempting to sabotage the prosperity of “real” Icelanders. This was the thrust of an August 2007 op-ed by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson, one of the most respected authors in Iceland and a regular columnist for Fréttablaðið. Guðmundur Andri felt there was something unbelievably silly about protesting Icelandic consumerism and materialism. It was something only a spoiled child would do. Probably just to get attention.
A nation of spoiled children
It is therefore interesting that at around the same time as Guðmundur Andri Thorsson wrote his article deriding environmentalists and critics of consumerism the extreme expressions of Icelandic consumerism were gaining greater attention, even from “real Icelanders”. We even encounter for the first time something that could pass for a sustained criticism of consumerism in the Icelandic media. This discussion, however, was almost offensively superficial and simplistic: Its main thrust was that Icelanders were by and large simply big greedy babies who needed to be taught a lesson. Columnists and commentators pined for a good old-fashioned recession to put the brakes on the materialism of their fellow countrymen. As the storm clouds of the coming crash and crisis were gathering they rejoiced, arguing that it would be a good thing; it would teach people a necessary lesson.
In April of 2008, for example, a columnist for Fréttablaðið wrote about how he had been sitting, eating his lunch at a restaurant in a shopping mall, all the while wondering how much better life would be when the depression finally hit and people “would begin enjoying the things they already had, instead of continually chasing after something new”. Two months later, in May, a different columnist wrote about how discussions of an impending recession had filled her with anticipation: she would get to live in “exciting times”. She then went on about how Icelanders, especially people of her generation, needed to learn some tough lessons, arguing that standing in line at a food bank would do the trick.
Comments like the above were a reoccurring theme in newspaper opinion columns from late 2007 throughout 2008, and while most (but not all) were somewhat tongue in cheek, they also revealed a certain attitude that appears to have been very common: that Icelanders were somehow so deeply wedded to consumerism that only a recession could cure them. The image of Icelandic consumerism as a drunken binge, complete with calls for people to “sober up” was also frequently used.
Recession as bitter medicine
This was also among the first impulses after the depression did hit: It was somehow good; people would now have more time to think about “what really mattered”, they would be cured of their materialism and greed. The media, eager to deliver ‘feelgood stories’, ran with this line. In early October 2008, Fréttablaðið devoted several pages to interviewing a young woman who had turned a sizable inheritance into an even larger fortune remodelling and building luxury homes for the Icelandic nouveau riche. Then, when the crash came, she lost some money on an ill-advised investment in a fashion chain, GK, which had catered to an upscale clientele along with ordinary people in the process of maxing out their credit cards. But no worry: this little adventure had taught her an lesson that she and the journalist felt was so profound that it had to be shared with the entire population: There was more to life than money, fancy things and consumerism!
At the same time, Arnar Gauti Sverrisson—who hosted a lifestyle show on TV station SkjárEinn entitled ‘Innlit-útlit’, which promoted the most vulgar form of consumerism and snobbery for luxuries and design goods—appeared alongside fashion retail queen Svava Johansen in SkjárEinn’s public service messages, where they urged people to think about the importance of all those things that money could not buy. Which sounded pretty funny coming from people who had built their entire careers on convincing people that they indeed needed to buy happiness and that the good life was defined by things, clothes, furniture and other stuff from the mall.
In fact, it wasn’t until the harsh reality of the economic crisis really hit home, and the lines at the food bank actually emerged, that this kind of silly speculation stopped. A large section of the population was cured of consumerism all right. They could not afford to feed their families.
Icelanders are just such spendthrifts…
This reaction to the coming depression and its beneficial potential as the miracle cure against materialism and consumerism underlines one thing, namely the view that when it came to consumption Icelanders somehow couldn’t help themselves.
Searching the public discussion of the years leading up to September 2008, the single most common explanation that is offered for Icelandic consumerism is that Icelanders were simply unusually given to spend money and buy things—because they derived such joy from consuming. It was some kind of a national characteristic. The lack of critical discussion about the origins of the consumption boom and the emphasis on it as caused by ‘the nature of Icelanders’ is a reflection of the degree to which people felt it was indeed a natural state of affairs: During the boom people felt there was nothing worthy of a deeper explanation going on.
The scorn that met artists or activists who criticised consumerism or materialism during the boom illustrates the same point: Criticism of the boom’s materialism was somehow fundamentally illegitimate. It was an attack on the settled order of things, the very nature of Icelandic society and culture.
What makes this all the more fascinating is that after the collapse there was an attempt to blame artists and the “krútt” movement for what was now seen as the superficiality of the boom period. Musicians and artists were also criticised for not having been critical enough during the boom, and for thus being complicit in the overconsumption extravaganza. Which is “kind of unsettling, [since] there are probably few social groups that participated less in all the boom bullshit than artists and musicians[,]” as Örvar of múm put it in an August 2009 interview with the Grapevine.
Consumerism as a pathology
After the crash a new consensus has been emerging, according to which the consumption boom was not so much a natural expression of innate national characteristics, but a form of disease or addiction. Icelanders became addicted to consumption.
Both explanations have a common feature: Icelanders were somehow unable to help themselves when it came to consumption. Whether it was caused by the cultural genome of the people or an addiction or disease, people were somehow at the mercy of some unexplainable forces outside anyone’s control. Both explanations conveniently absolve the banks that peddled “easy credit”, advertisers who sold people “affordable luxuries”, the lifestyle industry that convinced people they needed a makeover for themselves or their kitchens, let alone the larger social or economic structures.
It also diverts attention from the commentators and columnists as well as the cultural Brahmin, who not only failed to raise serious questions about the rampant materialism and consumerism of Icelandic society, but went so far as to deride and scold those who did.
No, the focus is on the individual moral failure of those Icelanders who fell victim to consumerism, all those people who bought flat screen TVs or travel trailers on credit.