As anyone living here is painfully aware, Iceland is not the shining example of anti-capitalist direct democracy that the foreign media likes to pretend it is. Politicians, business and the media are deeply entangled to the point where tycoons have no compunction with harassing journalists, members of parliament sit on the new constitution that the people voted for, and leftists fall over themselves to compromise with the same conservatives who ruined us. It has become increasingly clear that the changes needed in Iceland are not going to happen through legislation or elections—the system itself is what needs to be changed. As it so happens, the tools for this change are already here.
Iceland benefits from not only its small population, but also from a certain set of principles that seem to arise over and over again in public discussion about the kind of country many Icelanders want to have—ideas such as direct democracy, transparency, common ownership of the land, protection of the environment against predatory capitalists, and an end to top-down government. Grassroots movements—and we’ve seen a veritable bumper crop of them this election season—across the demographic spectrum from the elderly to university students all raise these ideas, in one form or another. MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir put it best, in a recent interview with website Occupy Savvy, when she said:
“We need to transform our thought of power and lack of power. Pyramids are not a natural order, the circle of power however is… Move from needing leaders to lead us from the mess and accept that our strength comes from being strong together rather than seeking strong leaders.”
There’s a name for the political ideology that encompasses these ideas. But it’s not a word you can use, or no one will take you seriously. To use this dreaded word will invite scorn and ridicule. Its very utterance brings to mind Molotov-hurling, window-smashing, spray can-wielding kids in balaclavas. “Consensus-based, leaderless, direct democracy” is OK. “Anarchism” is not.
The latest polls show that about half the nation wants to re-elect the same coalition that was in power during Iceland’s economic bubble. There are a lot of reasons for this—hereditary voting, protest voting, nostalgia for a wealthier time, and some genuine conservatives. Many Icelanders are experiencing a kind of national Stockholm Syndrome (a term born, it so happens, in the wake of a bank robbery), adoring their captors, unable to even imagine another type of society. And so the tedious, rotten system persists.
If the system itself is broken, and the vote won’t work, what options do the rest of us have? Anarchist writer Rudolf Rocker had a very simple description for the process of revolution: he believed that the new society must be “built within the shell of the old.” In other words, we organise, we talk to and listen to each other, we design a new way of distributing power, and then we put it into action.
Sound utopian? Perhaps, but it’s already started. Many of the aforementioned grassroots movements have no “leader” per se, but rather derive their principles and plans of action through consensus. Technology provides us with tools more quickly, far less expensively and more comprehensively than Spanish resistance fighters in 1936 ever dreamed possible. Websites such as Betrí Reykjavík and Betra Ísland are functioning examples of direct democracy, wherein each and every person acts as their own legislator. “E-democracy” has proven itself to be highly effective, where small communities in the US (i.e., a few thousand people) are more or less run by leaderless direct democracy. There is no reason why Iceland’s 320,000 people cannot organise themselves similarly.
Of course, simply creating more of such websites and then casting e-ballots is not going to give the creaking, rusted system the nudge it needs to topple over. Direct action is also going to have to play a major role, from vamping up independent media to organising general strikes, among other methods. New laws don’t change societies when the system itself is broken; only a new system will. The building of this new system, while tearing down the old, is a process that we not only can all take part in; it’s a process that’s already happening.
I realise this all sounds very simplistic, but bear in mind, I’ve got an 800-word limit here. These are the broad strokes, as it were, for a better society for all of us, and for generations to come. Iceland is surprisingly close to achieving this aim—whatever name, if any, you want to call such an idea.