Published April 17, 2017
Am I just a version of the end of days?
Am I just an effect of a modern phase?
Am I just the end point of the grand parade?
Should we be afraid?
-‘American Psycho’, the Musical
I’m going to assume you’ve heard of the Most Horrific Financial Crisis in the History of Time that began in 2008 and that, at the time, you also came across at least one news report on Iceland’s role and destiny in this amazing spectacle of late capitalism. You might also have heard that Iceland reacted wisely in this Perfect Storm by refusing to nationalize its insolvent banks and jailing the key perpetrators, and you might also know that the reality of it is a little more complicated than that.
What a guy
In late March an important and interesting piece in this tragicomedy came to light. We now have a new national villain, one Ólafur Ólafsson, a businessman who was also one of the financial wizards put behind bars in the aftermath of the crisis (for a really, really short period of time; he was—amazingly but also very tellingly—hurt in a helicopter accident while apparently “serving time”). What a guy. Undeniably a serial winner—the Luis Suárez of Nordic Finance, after a fashion, as my cousin observed. Why has his status as villain now been elevated to an almost supercritical level?
Almost a Russian-style theft
As Brecht wrote: ‘What’s the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?’ Mr. Ólafsson is in a sense another playwright. He directed the most influential play of the 21st century in Iceland when the Búnaðarbankinn Bank (later the infamous Kaupthing Bank) was privatized in 2002. At the time of privatization, the public was led to believe that a small and pretty much unknown German bank had acquired the largest share of Búnaðarbankinn. An official investigation committee has now, fifteen years later, concluded that the whole thing was a fraud and that the German bank was just a front for a group of Icelandic businessmen with the appropriate political ties. The director of this astoundingly simple execution was Mr. Ólafsson, who apparently didn’t table a single króna but came away with an obscene amount of money only a few months later. It was almost a Russian-style theft of state property, simple and effective. And we all know what happened five years later when that creative mix of stupidity and incompetence known as the Icelandic financial system came crashing down in, literally, a world-class manner. Will our man go to jail for this? Of course not! Will anybody? Of course not!
True Poet of Capital
We have this nice word in Icelandic: ‘Athafnaskáld.” It’s difficult to translate, but I’d say it’s more or less a “Poet of Capital” or more literally a “Poet of Action.” Ólafur Ólafsson is a true Poet of Capital, but we should remember that every poet needs a muse. It’s way too easy and lazy to write Mr. Ólafsson off as “a version of the end of days” and leave it at that. Rather, maybe he was both the beginning and “the end of the grand parade.” The then-government, that now—as expected—maintains it was completely deceived by Mr. Ólafsson’s artistic mastery and didn’t know anything about the scam even though everybody seems to agree that it looked like a pathetically unconvincing hoax the whole time, created the stage for this astonishing mess. Should we believe them or should we be afraid?
The muse is still dancing
The privatization of the banks at the turn of the century was a playwriting competition in which it actually didn’t matter how bad the submissions were as long as they came from the right people and fitted the narrative formula required by the government. Were Mr. Ólafsson and his business buddies immoral? Yes, they knew what they were doing, and did it nonetheless. But they’re really not the ones we should be afraid of. The muse is still dancing at the club and new poets will be let in.