Icelanders who lived through the first decade of the 21st century found it to be the most interesting, and the most infuriating, epoch in our history. We experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows. We imagined ourselves to be the richest people in the world, and then saw our illusory gains vanish in the span of a few days. We believed our leaders were supremely competent and just then discovered the depths of their incompetence and corruption.
I suspect that statistically, we are better off financially in 2010 than we were in 2000, but it doesn’t feel that way. Having tasted the good life, we feel impoverished by our sudden inability to buy new cars every year, to indulge in shopping sprees abroad or to take tropical vacations every few months. After years during which there was essentially no unemployment and plenty of foreigners to perform shit jobs, we are traumatized by the permanent loss of high-paying jobs at the banks and long periods of scrambling to just get by.
People were seduced by government guarantees and low interest rates to purchase outrageously expensive homes, only to see their incomes plummet and the effective interest rates rise, essentially relegating them to the status of indentured servants.
Although it is obvious that our system of government has failed us, Icelandic voters showed little interest in the recent elections to the Constitutional Assembly. Although it was the policies of the Independence Party that opened the door to the massive abuses we witnessed, and its leaders who facilitated and participated in the financial fraud, the unrepentant IP remains Iceland’s single largest political party.
Will the next decade be any better? Although Iceland’s prosperity is largely dependent on that of the much larger economies in America and Europe, we retain the power to determine our own happiness. Numerous studies have shown that the level of a nation’s happiness, once its people’s basic needs have been assured, does not correlate strongly to its wealth. The four generally accepted pillars of societal happiness include: promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment and establishment of good governance.
The first three of these pillars are largely dependent on the fourth pillar—good governance—and on this measure I am not optimistic. Bertrand de Jouvenel observed that “a society of sheep must in time beget a government of wolves.” Other than that brief, glorious moment in January 2008 when popular protests forced the resignations of Geir Haarde’s government, nothing that I’ve seen over the past couple of years indicates that we are willing to do anything meaningful to wrest control of our country from the wolves. No one has accepted responsibility for the abuses and crimes that culminated in the kreppa, and the courts have not held anyone liable for their blatant incompetence, negligence, and corruption. The thieves have kept their riches, and the rest of us are more subjugated than ever.
The ultimate problem is ourselves. We learned the price of everything, but the value of nothing. We learned much about ourselves, and then deliberately exorcised those lessons from our collective memory. Þetta reddast allt. Until our attitude changes, nothing else will.