Nearly three years ago, on October 6, 2008, then-Prime Minister Geir Haarde offered this grim prognostication on Icelandic national television:
“There is a very real danger, fellow citizens, that the Icelandic economy, in the worst case, could be sucked with the banks into the whirlpool and the result could be national bankruptcy.”
At that time, his message reflected an economic shot heard around the world, one that translated into demonstrations and reforms. Now, for better or worse, that energy is gone, but the problems remain. Protests against these problems seem like bursts of irrational anger, directed at only the most public figures, with the nation’s supply of eggs taking heavy losses. The guiding slogan could be: “We’re pissed off. Let’s do something useless about it!”
In this pursuit, perhaps mirroring the situation in the United States regarding Occupy Wall Street, Icelanders joined a protest at Austurvöllur on Monday night. It had them up in arms, screaming, yelling, pouting, banging drums and lighting flares, for sure, but those energies are misplaced. Iceland’s recent protests in the city centre have been pointless exercises, affecting little change in a stubborn political process.
Saturday morning and Monday night’s protests were according to most accounts inspired by the Icelandic economy, as well as the unchanged structure of the housing loan system. The demonstrations were peaceful and somewhat articulated the very real problem of Iceland’s political paralysis. Many scholars and politicians engaged in similar behaviour, pointing out how inaction exists simply because we are in the middle of recovery, and that recovery is a slow, painful process. With that said, one must ask, how can we end this political gridlock and speed this recovery up in a meaningful way?
Though the uselessness of political protest is endemic in most cases, in 2008 Iceland was special because of its grassroots, direct approach to quelling the crisis. 2008 is history now. As a portrait of the current situation, the ongoing placement of barricades around Alþingi asserts how the Icelandic government is getting used to tolerating a comfortable, acceptable margin of complacent dissent. With that said, Icelanders need new, sensible political direction and guidance leading to practical change, be it currently legal or illegal, or unpopular against the elite dictates found in international financial media.
“I lost everything”
Icelanders are genuinely suffering, and politicians in Alþingi may shudder at the thought of harassment by barricaded activists clamouring for their resignation letters, but the kind of pressure exerted on the Icelandic elite is too loose to be useful, and it shows. Voices at the demonstration were enraged, comical, desperate or marginally relevant:
“We are against everything that the government does! We have nothing! All the people in the government can do what the fuck they want, but we get shit, so fuck them!”
-a beer-drinking punk rocker banging at the Alþingi barricades.
“I’m so mad I made a sign”
–Humorous and ironic poster at the demonstration.
“I lost my company, I lost my home, I lost everything,” said one Icelander. Another, holding a large crucifix, offered: “I lost my business!” One said, “I lost my house in Reykjavík, and I’m doing something for the people. We have to take out all of the people in the government. It’s about economics.”
“I am here to protest against the government, because I think they are not fit to run the country… I don’t think it has an understanding of how economics work, and what society needs…everybody has been affected. I have not been affected very badly. It’s killing the economy, how the economics are organised and how they are governed here in Iceland.” This demonstrator went on to say, “The government wants to support a Palestinian terrorist state.”
Where are the answers?
As you can see, like in politically splintered and economically battered America and continental Europe, Icelanders are now turning to a diversity of causes to make up for the shortfall of galvanising and unifying political causes.
Thankfully, some officials attempted at quelling the disturbance to the peace. Although the actions of Dorrit Moussaieff, the President’s wife, jumping over the barricade comically harks back to an older tradition of direct democracy, it was more spectacle than substance.
Since 2008, only superficial changes have occurred in the political or regulatory landscape of Iceland. Where are the answers, and where is the way out? How can Icelanders help?
All Icelanders will need to engage in activities that disrupt their normal behaviour in order finally to build a new political reality that shakes up status quo of their four party system. A lack of cooperation here is a hindrance. Icelandic protesters need to find the specific legislation to reform, a serious way of punishing politicians and financial crooks, and the appropriate means of altering the political system that fully erases the legacy of the international embarrassment of 2008. They will also need to diversify their means of protest. Parliamentarians are not the only responsible parties. This will require insider information, new methods of organisation, as well as old-fashioned persistence and discipline. More than anything, whatever answer that presents itself will need determination and spine.