At of the time of writing the Icelandic ‘pots and pans movement’, which can also be labeled the Icelandic indignados movement, has once again confronted the government, the IMF and the world financial system, and the government has once again promised to look “seriously” at its demands.
The Icelandic pots and pans movement is close to breaking the back of Icelandic neo-liberalism. The government can no longer hope to regain any kind of hegemony based on the idea that the free market is to play the leading role in society. This idea has so thoroughly been discredited that it is a marvel that Iceland’s “left” neoliberal government has touted it for so long. Of course the IMF (Goldman Sachs, the US government – basically the same entity) demanded it, and the IMF is still the main force behind Icelandic neo-liberalism. A basic prerequisite for the “help” of IMF to Iceland that the demands of the protest movement for a general debt restructuring should be ignored. This the “left” neo-liberal government obeyed and it is now reaping the rewards in a steadily deepening distrust of the general public towards the political establishment, the media and the financial system.
But of course the IMF does not care about political or social dimensions of society, it is only hired to take care of the economy―that is to say, ensure that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That is the real meaning of the neoliberal hegemony.
THE ICELANDIC INDIGNADOS
When the Icelandic ‘pots and pans movement’ appeared―it could now be called the Icelandic division of the ‘indignados’ movement―it was alone in Europe. The ‘pots and pans movement’ appeared after the collapse of the Icelandic financial system, in the so-called ‘pots and pans revolution’, which reached a high watermark in January of 2009, when the movement brought the government down with its protests. To be sure, it soon sought support from a closely related European movement, the alter-globalisation movement of Attac and the European Social Forum. The alter-globalization movement welcomed the Icelandic movement and a local chapter of Attac was started in Iceland with the help of the Norwegian Attac, which is the strongest Attac chapter in Scandinavia.
The movement against neo-liberalism had its origins in the core capitalist countries like France and the US in 1997-1999. Attac was started by an article in the radical French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique in 1997, which was written on the occasion of the South-East Asian crisis of 1997. The South-East Asian financial crisis started in Thailand and caused a collapse of stock prices across the region. When the IMF stepped in to “help” it made matters much worse by ordering totally liberalised capital markets as a prerequisite for its assistance, which in a short time led to a gigantic capital flight from the region. The countries in the area suffered greatly, South Korea and other countries still bearing the scars of the crisis decades later.
THE ALTER-GLOBALISATION MOVEMENT
radicals in the the capitalist core reacted by starting what has been called an alter-globalisation movement, a movement against neo-liberalism. The French, Germans and other Europeans active in this movement soon connected with radicals in Brazil and elsewhere in the place formerly called the third world (this terms seems to apply mostly only to Africa now, the other parts of the third world have become “emerging markets with a growing middle class”). The annual World Social Forum, of which the first was held in Porto Alegre in 2001, was the one of the results.
Iceland was the only Scandinavian country which was left unaffected by this movement. All the others were affected, with Sweden the scene of one of the big battles between neo-liberal state power and the activists, in Gothenburg in June 2001. It seems that Iceland’s present Finance Minister (and chairman of the Left-Green party), Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, was interested in starting an Attac chapter in Iceland at the time and was in touch with Susan George, one of the leading lights of Attac in France, but nothing came of it.
THE NEO-LIBERAL TIGERS OF NORTHERN EUROPE
Iceland seems perhaps in some respects to have had more in common with countries like Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, or Ireland, countries that whole-heartedly embraced the opportunities opened by neo-liberal financial globalization after having been in the economic doldrums for much of the 20th century, than Scandinavia or the countries were the anti-globalization movement developed. Even so Iceland had a robust economic development the whole 19th and 20th centuries, leading to the situation that a kind of rather „healthy“ or benign modern capitalism that developed in Iceland with a relatively strong welfare state up to about 1980 (though not as strong or well organised as in Scandinavia) was shattered by neo-liberalism.
However, this was not evident until October 2008. Until then neo-liberalism with its unfettered capitalism and creative banking seemed to be creating unheard of wealth in Iceland. A few dissidents muttered in corners here and there that the wealth created was not at all evenly distributed and nobody outside the top echelons of the financial sector had benefitted from it. But these voices were few and far between.
A NEW KIND OF MOVEMENT
This all changed radically after the collapse in Iceland in October 2008. Suddenly Iceland developed a protest movement, which was however of a different kind in some respects that the earlier movements. They were protest movements in the core capitalist countries that protested against the unjust treatment of other, peripheral countries in the capitalist world system, even if some of the destructive tendency of this system was very evident in the US rust belt, with many industries being moved to China and elsewhere. Now a protest movement exploded in a country close to the core, a “wealthy Scandinavian democracy with a good welfare system,” because of the consequences it had suffered due to the bubble economy.
This was a new development in the protest movement against neo-liberalism. Hitherto the core capitalist countries in the West had not been directly affected by any crisis, but in the period 2008-2011 more and more countries in this core were affected. And the protest movement exploded, first in Iceland, then Greece, Spain, Portugal and France, and finally it erupted with great force in the core country of world capitalism itself, the US. In the fall of 2011 a movement called Occupy Wall Street gathered strength and broke through to world attention in October 2011, three years after the collapse of the Lehman brothers bank and the beginning of the new world crisis.
ROOTS BACK TO 1999-2001
The movement in the US had roots back to the anti-globalisation movement of the period around 2000, but this movement had been extinguished when the Al Qaeda attacked New York and Washington. Now the movement comes back in full force, now that the US has been directly affected by a deep economic, financial, social and political crisis, that is affecting the whole of the West and threatens to plunge the core countries of Europe, like Germany, France and Great Britain, into crisis as well.
So the Icelandic situation has brought the country to the attention of the world protest movements. The protest movement in Iceland has done something that no other movement has hitherto done, it has toppled a neo-liberal government of the country – albeit with the results that another neo-liberal government, a so called “left” government came to power – and the protest movement has had to deal with a situation were the election of a new government has not resulted in any changes. The situation is as dire as before, the new “left” government brought to power by the protest movement is blind and deaf and unable to respond to the cries from the streets. It is seemingly in the clutches of the financial oligarchy, and so some new democratic strategy must be devised to deprive financial capital of its authoritarian hold over state power. The conventional methods of democracy do not seem to function.
So what can be done? October 15 saw were protests against the power of the financial markets and for more democracy simultaneously in over 800 cities in about 80 countries in the world. That is surely a positive sign, even a source of optimism.