The breaking news of the Panama Papers leak last week, and the Icelandic politicians involved, has sparked some truly inspiring behaviour from the general public – clear demands and concerted pressure from protesters, and critical journalism from many media outlets in this country.
However, events from just the past week alone have made me pretty worried. And by that I mean we’re already seeing infighting, self-sabotage, and the deluded belief that all you need to fix a crooked game is just change the players amongst establishment opponents. All while the status quo blithely marches on, securing its position at the top. If we are ever to change Iceland’s political structure, we need both solidarity and innovative thought.
Like any western representative democracy, Iceland’s establishment opponents also repeatedly fall into the same traps over and again. Tone policing is rife amongst establishment opponents. Every time a group of Icelanders attempt to push back against the status quo, there will always be some self-described allies who rush to point what really matters: that we not call politicians bad names, that we not make them feel uncomfortable, that we act like we’re all having a friendly disagreement over a croquet match with no real life consequences for anybody. That if you just say “pretty please”, the power-hungry will somehow realise the error of their ways and kindly step down.
Icelanders have a word for this: meðvirkni. It’s a word that encompasses both co-dependency and enabling, and it describes the Icelandic political scene to a T. Politicians subjected to criticism accuse their critics of attacking them and not making substantial arguments, supposed allies of establishment opponents start scolding others to go out of their way to seem really super-duper polite and civil, which in turn dilutes the criticism to the point that the opposition dies down, then some politicians will screw up once more, and the cycle begins anew.
The tone policing from within is not only condescending; it’s completely ahistorical. You could choose any number of examples throughout history of when very angry people engaging directly with authority figures proved to be the final push needed to make change happen, but you could also look closer to home.
A lot of people forget that from late 2008 through early 2009 in Iceland, the ruling coalition didn’t really budge as tens of thousands of people stood in front of parliament banging pots and pans for hours on end, month after month, because these people posed zero threat to the stability of the establishment. It was not until people got angry enough to engage in direct action that the ruling coalition saw the writing on the wall and dissolved. Playing nice with people in power who have demonstrated that they don’t care what you think does us no favours.
As I write this, it has been barely two weeks since Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson was forced to step down, and early elections may happen in just six months. Still, opposition parties have already begun taking taking jabs at one another instead of focusing solely on their common enemy.
Ultimately, though, that’s how party politics in a representative democracy works – people organising themselves around teams rather than policies, playing for seat numbers for your team, even if it means taking potshots at ideological allies from other teams, believing “majority rules” is the same as democracy, and believing democratic participation is something you do one day every four years. In Iceland, you need only look at the past seven years to see how that’s worked out for us: swapping out a right-leaning centrist coalition for a leftist one in 2009; voting in a decidedly right-wing coalition in 2013, and now, preparing to vote in who-knows this autumn, somehow believing that this time when we throw a brick straight up in the air, it won’t fall straight back down on our heads again.
It would be delusional to expect that just voting in different players to participate in a broken system will somehow fix it. It’s the political structure itself that needs to be changed. I would suggest that a relatively young republic of 320,000 people is probably in a much better position to practice real and actual non-hierarchical direct democracy than a larger country with a more calcified and byzantine establishment. But for that to happen, all of us who want the system to change need to stop fighting separately – and most of all, with each other – and start supporting each other as we engage in the messy, angry, but ultimately rewarding process of revolution.
We do not need to agree with each other 100% to work with each other. But we do need to work with each other if things are ever going to change.