Published June 15, 2018
Sanna Magdalena Mörtudóttir did not envision herself as a politician. In many ways she still doesn’t; not an establishment politician, anyway. However, through growing up in poverty, and being raised as a woman of colour by a single mother, she was always keenly aware of the problems of inequality in Icelandic society. So she spoke from her experience, in the form of a lengthy Facebook status a year and a half ago, which caught on like wildfire. Shortly thereafter, she helped found the Socialist Party.
Sanna doesn’t dwell much on theory. Her party hasn’t even yet defined itself as Marxist-Leninist, Maoist, or any other established form of socialism. Instead, she sees her mission as a fairly simple one: “We’re about power to the people. Taking a seat at the table where the power decisions are made. The people that experience being powerless in this society should have more say in the factors that affect their lives.”
But isn’t Iceland already socialist?
One of the more prevailing myths about Icelandic society is that full equality has been achieved here; that we jailed all the bankers, poverty doesn’t exist, and the feminists have won. The reality, of course, is very different from this.
“I think there’s this huge myth that in Iceland we don’t have any classes,” Sanna explains. “This isn’t true, but everyone just wants to keep things hush-hush and doesn’t want to talk about it. They say everyone is equal here in Iceland and everyone has equal rights. I think the main reason why the Socialist Party came about is because we feel the parties on the left wing abandoned their socialist background, their roots. They’re more of an establishment catering to the middle class, and forgot about the grassroots; the people they’re supposed to be fighting for. So we feel the so-called left haven’t been doing their job. The working poor, pensioners, people with disabilities, renters, immigrants — we in the Socialist Party built our base on the experience of these people. That’s the difference. We are the people.”
While there are leftist parties in Iceland, their approach to inclusivity can leave a lot to be desired.
“People will say ‘hey let’s have a board meeting about people with disabilities’ and think to ask maybe one person with a disability to come and sit at this meeting,” Sanna says. “They think they’re including all voices, when they should be actively talking to lots of people who have this experience.”
To counter this, Sanna intends to make it her mission to make the voices of the marginalised not only heard, but present in City Council itself.
Passing on the majority
Before the dust had even settled after the elections, people were speculating on whether or not the Socialist Party was going to help the Social Democrats and others form a broad-based centre-left coalition. Sanna’s response was definitive: not only were they not going to help that coalition; they weren’t going to be taking part in any majority coalition discussions.
This decision was met with confusion, and in some cases even anger, from many people. But to Sanna the issue could not have been simpler.
“Our entire campaign was based on the experience of the working poor, pensioners, people with disabilities, renters and immigrants,” she says. “We didn’t want to compromise or give a discount on our platform by joining a majority.
“Also, all during the campaign we were criticising how these so-called left parties were working, that they weren’t radical enough and weren’t talking against this neoliberalism that we have been putting so much focus on, so if we would all of the sudden be in a majority with them, then maybe the voters would decide that we’re all very similar and there’s not much difference between us. People felt betrayed by these supposed leftist parties. There was some misunderstanding, where people thought we were giving up, but I think now more people get it. I’m still going to have a seat in City Council. I can still make proposals and criticise. It’s not like I’m packing my bags and giving up. We can do a lot more working with these marginalised people.”
And what does “power to the people” mean?
In an additional follow up to this controversy, Sanna penned a lengthy essay that unpacked one of Malcolm X’s more famous essays, in which he outlined the difference between people who work towards liberation and those who, having been given small rewards for their obedience, prefer to work within the existing system — these two different classes mark a division within the same group of people. Sanna saw parallels between the phenomenon Malcolm X described and her own struggle, and wasn’t afraid to highlight them.
“I really like powerful stories to explain to people what I mean,” she explains. “I really like how that one story is rough, it’s brutal, it’s honest. It doesn’t talk between the lines. So I look a lot to this kind of literature in this battle, because there’s a lot of similarities with our struggle.”
The platform points Sanna is fighting for are easy to understand, but broad in scope.
“We have three points that we want to tackle: power to the people, housing for all, and to end the low-wage policy for city workers,” she says. “Safe housing is just one of the most basic welfare factors that need to be corrected in people’s lives. The stress you face when you don’t have secure housing is tremendous. Renters have limited rights. We’d like to look at putting a cap on rental prices. And we don’t want to see this outsourcing amongst city workers. And by ‘power to the people’ we mean we want to see more people be able to take an active role in deciding policy that affect their lives. I need to talk to these grassroots groups, and ask, ‘What is it you want to have heard in City Council? What can I emphasise?’ We want to be a movement, and in a movement you need the voices of everyone.”