From Iceland — How We Could Use A Pinch Of Idealism

How We Could Use A Pinch Of Idealism

Published January 18, 2013

How We Could Use A Pinch Of Idealism

In recent weeks, we have seen a storm of protests against the political elite in Slovenia, a former Yugoslav republic that is now a member of both the EU and NATO. It began in late November in Maribor, the country’s second largest city, with a series of protests against the city’s mayor Franc Kangler.
The revolt
The twice-elected mayor has been prosecuted by the police and accused of corruption several times, but has of yet not been convicted in court. The final straw this autumn for the people of Maribor was a murky public-private partnership deal which resulted in more than twenty traffic radars (!) being placed all around the city. In protest, some of them were later set on fire. The demonstrations grew more and more massive and occasionally escalated to violence, with groups of hooligans clashing with the police. After several weeks of tension and angry chants, including “Gotof je!” (“He’s finished!”), which became the movement’s main slogan, the mayor of Maribor finally announced his resignation.
But the genie had already left the bottle. A wave of protest opposing the Slovenian political elite spread across the country, aimed at corrupt mayors and municipal councillors, incompetent politicians and the current government, as well as Slovenian politics as such. Ljubljana, the capital, was no exception. Some protests were smaller, others bigger, with up to 10-15,000 people attending, but all of them revealed an unpleasant truth about modern Slovenia.
Once the most developed republic of the former Yugoslavia, a nation of little more than two million that was left practically untouched by the bloody Yugoslav wars in the early 1990s ran into trouble with the start of the 2008 financial crisis when its economic and industrial model began to wear itself out. Slovenia’s problems are complex: the failure of both the left- and right-wing political and intellectual elites to provide a vision or an idea of the country’s role in the globalized world of the 21st century is perhaps the most important one. The fact that it has developed a culture of corruption and clientelism, deeply rooted in the political class, is another. When one adds in the effects of the Eurozone crisis, the consequences of the pre-2008 construction bubble which left Slovenia almost without an operating construction industry, indebted state-owned banks with billions of euros in bad debt, mostly unprosecuted financial crimes, mismanagement of state-owned assets, high unemployment, tough austerity measures (cuts in higher education, public health care, and culture), brain drain, rising inequality, the prevailing feeling of hopelessness, etc., the mixture becomes explosive.
The current right-wing neoliberal government with Janez Janša as prime minister is part of the problem as well. A highly controversial figure, Janša is currently being charged in an international armaments bribery case. His administration treats the public sector and the common good as war trophies, and its autocratic style of government resembles Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. But just recently Prime Minister Janša (along with the oppositional leader Zoran Janković) was accused of violations of anti-corruption legislation and in the moment the survival of the government seems highly unlikely. Despite that the main political relations in the country aren’t expected to change.
Looking for a role model
From this point of view, the social unrest in Slovenia is completely understandable. But in the midst of these very diverse and mostly peaceful protests, which are likely to continue, and the outcome of which is yet to be seen, amidst various demands (for so-called direct democracy, the resignation of the current government, fairer and better society, etc.) that have yet to be fully articulated, amongst demonstrators (discredited by the main conservative party as “zombies”), varying from young to old, from students to seniors, all of whom are demonstrating without any official leadership, one ‘magic’ word keeps popping up again and again, and that is: Iceland.
With a few exceptions, the major Slovenian media outlets haven’t done a lot of first-hand reporting about post-crash Iceland, so the Slovenian public gets most of its information from alternative sources: the foreign press, documentaries and such. In general, Iceland is viewed as a highly positive example of how important social change can be achieved by persistent and (mostly) peaceful demonstrations, i.e. by acts of so-called active citizenship. But it’s a view that quickly becomes distorted, simplified, and idealised. People don’t seem to be wondering about the details.
For example, while the whole process of changing Iceland’s Constitution is rightly regarded as an important step towards more direct political participation, the popular perception makes it sound like everything happened overnight, just like that. All the hard work, the unsuccessful elections for the Constitutional Assembly, and other complications are rarely mentioned. Iceland’s judicial system is praised for putting former Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde on trial, and for trying to establish his responsibility for the financial crash, but the fact that he received no real sentence doesn’t seem to be so important. It is also regularly stated that in Iceland all the corrupt and greedy bankers got what they deserved, i.e. that they were put on trial and held accountable for their actions, but no one mentions that some cases are so complex that they’re going to take more than just a few years to solve. While Slovenians are familiar with the outcome of the famous pots-and-pans revolution, they don’t know much about Iceland’s disillusionment with the new political forces headed by Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, about the sense of disappointment that also arose after the revolt.
The story of how Davíð Oddsson—Iceland’s longest-serving prime minister, the former head of the Central Bank, and one of the main symbols of everything that led to the revolution— became one of the editors-in-chief of Iceland’s biggest newspaper in 2009 is never told. It serves, however, as a good example of how the old political and business elites won’t give up their power and influence so easily, and of how striving for a better and fairer society – be it in Iceland or in Slovenia—is always a long, permanent struggle. It is a marathon, not a sprint.
A pinch of idealism
Personally, I remain a bit sceptical about such one-sided enthusiasm when it comes to post-crash Iceland, and not because I would want to patronize or lecture my compatriots who don’t read The Reykjavík Grapevine, or because I would want to deny all the positive things that happened in Iceland in the last four years. It’s because, I’ve learned from personal experience not to jump to premature conclusions.
It was in the late summer of 2008 that I first went to Iceland and spent a couple of weeks there as a tourist and as a participant in a volunteer project. I had a great time and came back home thinking I knew all about this beautiful country—about its people, its way of life, its culture, its past, present, and future—only to be left totally clueless about what was going on when the news about the financial crash started coming in. It took me a while to grasp it. Two years later, in the autumn of 2010, I made another mistake: a few strolls on Laugavegur and one week spent at the Reykjavík International Film Festival were enough for me to declare confidently that everything was fine again and that the crisis was definitely over.
So I was very surprised to see two quite big and tense anti-government protests in front of the Alþingi. I couldn’t really understand all the eggs that were being thrown into the building, all the chants, all the noise, all the dissatisfaction, all the anger… I had been told a different story, I kept thinking. I thought the good guys had won.
It’s really easy to simplify, but I would like to conclude by stressing another point of view. At the moment, Slovenia is trapped between hard austerity measures, the Eurozone crisis, and the demands of the so-called financial markets on one side, and between the current autocratic government, thoughtless neoliberalism that has made it to the mainstream, and the lack of a political alternative on the other. A different, more unequal, more selfish, and crueller society is taking shape. The fight against it will be long and hard, and will probably happen on different levels: on the streets and squares with demonstrations, manifestations etc. in civil society, where new political and social ideas will have to develop, and, in the end, in politics as such, where some kind of new progressive force will ultimately have to emerge. The struggle will demand from all of us the best that we have: energy, persistence, inventiveness, creativity, solidarity, sense of humour, etc.
At the beginning, however, we could use a pinch of idealism. We can use the good parts of the Iceland story: the pots-and-pans revolution, the changing of the constitution and so on, as a starting point. In fact, that’s all we need: just one little spark, one moment of inspiration, one simple example—even if a little romanticised and not entirely accurate—that it could all be different.

Gregor Inkret (1987) is a student of sociology of culture and comparative literature and a publicist from Ljubljana, Slovenia.

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