Published June 14, 2011
A few years back fate brought me to Húsavík, a small town in northern Iceland. Fate? Well, friends were getting married close by, it was friendship that brought me, but I had a mini-revelation there, the whimsiest little epiphany. Húsavík is a pretty little town, with pretty little houses, and during the summer it’s crowded with tourists. You might have been there. I heard more Italian and French than Icelandic there.
Life centres around the harbour, where once upon a time they must have caught fish, but now offer whale watching tours. The harbour has been organised as its own little world, attractive sign-posts pointing this way for tickets, that way for dining—they have stuff that looks like amusement, along with restaurants and cafés in the plural, which is more than could have been said about any small town in Iceland less than two decades ago.
I sat there and observed the people boarding, unboarding, dining—members of the professional classes with their spouses and offspring—and thought to myself: this is what money is for. It was a revelation of the sort that neoliberal pundits hope we all have at one point or another: this is what money is for.
My great-grandfather saw money for the first time when he was eleven years old. Money as our daily means of exchange, something we all use and are aware of, is a very recent thing. Still during the first decades of the twentieth century it was more common in Icelandic municipalities that the same company would employ you as a worker, and handle the groceries, while taking care that you earned a little less than you spent. Your wages and your purchases would be kept in the company’s register, leaving actual money in the hands of the owners. Keeping you in debt made sure you wouldn’t leave.
In the 18th century, when Iceland got its own prison, now the seat of government, the first people to be locked up were the drifters. Locked up and forced to labour for the growing town’s first industrial enterprise. Even today wandering—wandering without some sort of capital, be it financial or social—is considered hazardous to our street-number-based societies, as can be seen by the way European countries, Iceland included, treat members of the Roma population.
THREE WAYS TO TRAVEL
Before the advent of money there were three ways to travel: you could go around with an army, looting your way through the world—or as a thief, observing the same logic on a smaller scale. You could go around as member of a church or a convent, in the certainty that other churches or convents would greet you and treat you kindly, as you would one day treat someone else in return. Members of the aristocracy could rely on a little bit of both as well as on the hospitality of their benevolent peers—not the ones who would rather get rid of you. The moral logic of greeting and treating a traveller kindly is noted in the Icelandic Viking verses Hávamál, but implicitly reserved to upper classes—thralls are a different category, spoken of but not directly addressed by the poet. Your third option would be to go around begging. Three options: Steal, observe ritual, or beg. But only money, and the purchases with which our daily lives are now saturated, was the tourist made possible. French and Italian families could finally spend their idle time in Húsavík and see some whales.
Sitting by the pier in Húsavík I thought to myself: this is magnificent. This is absolutely wonderful. How deliciously absurd that this is even possible—not only technologically, but socially: that with a bank note or an electronic stripe in your pocket you can whimsically go around the globe and rest assured that you will suffer neither hunger nor thirst, nor lack a place to stay. And you don’t even have to be polite, let alone observe religious ritual.
TWO ATTITUDES TOWARDS TOURISTS
So much for the glory of capitalism. Everyone is an anti-capitalist now, also the neoliberals of old—ask anyone about Davíð Oddsson, Hannes Hólmsteinn, Styrmir Gunnarsson and their legacy: currently they spend their days blogging, inventing curses against global capitalism, ‘bad capitalists’, and greed. Right-wing or conservative capitalist critique comes in two flavours that can be detected by their attitude towards tourists.
There are those who detest the whale-watchers in Húsavík. They will find it tasteless, plebeian, offensive, that such ignoramuses can step on an airplane, notice nothing on the way except the boarding signs and whatever DVD they watch on board, catch a ride or rent a car to Húsavík, hop on board a boat, watch whales—those mundane albeit large swimming meat containers—and act as if they own the place, without being even slightly interested in the locals, the sagas or the latest town council disputes. The other, more affluent, sort consists of those who like the idea of tourism, practice it themselves from time to time, but do so on the presumption that the tourists are the sorts of persons they could imagine inviting to their own living room. They assume sameness, that wherever the tourist comes from, he is not a total stranger.
SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT
What the Left, however, has in common with the now almost universally despised libertarians, is admiration for the wonders of this minimal alienation: you don’t have to be nice to be entitled. The rights of money are observed in the way all rights should be—the difference between a right and a permission is precisely this: a right is something you neither work for (and no, no one really every got rich from work, keep your myths in your pocket, please) nor have to prove by displaying intelligence, kindness or any other virtue—you neither ask for it nor earn it, since it is not granted: once declared, a right is simply yours. Our current challenge, the ongoing challenge of modern times, is this: how to make the liberty of the whale-watchers in Húsavík—their independence—independent from arbitrary factors such as property?
Whatever they’ve told you in the last two decades, there is a leftist utopia: it is where anyone is considered entitled to a lot of things, anywhere, at any time—where you don’t have to like a person to grant him or her what is already his or hers. This universal entitlement is already nominally secured in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which includes not just the right to life, to shelter and nourishment, free speech etc., but the right to receive education and enjoy culture. The charter is quite a radical document, once fully observed. The leftist emphasis on justice and equality is not supposed to be a step backwards from mobility, but precisely the universalisation of mobility.
So how do you tell whether an anti-capitalist project is an emancipatory project deserving the honourable label Left, or the conservative people-should-stay-where-they-belong-and-observe-good-old-values sort of thing? Currently this method is valid: Once such a project has been declared by a government, you observe the languages spoken at the country’s main sites of attraction. If a growing number of the people who go whale-watching in Húsavík, say, come from countries with a lower GDP than Iceland, if you hear Hindu, Arabic and Swahili more often, year by year, someone is doing something progressive. Something progressive such as deciding that from now when people from sub-Saharan Africa make enquiries about tourist visas to Iceland, they get a reply. If this is not the case, and the whale-watchers stay thoroughly OECD, then whatever sort of socialism is going on, sorry to say: it’s just not the progressive sort.
This article’s author, philosopher/filmmaker Haukur Már Helgason, is premiering a documentary on the RVK9 case at the Skjaldborg film festival this month (www.skjaldborg.com). It’s called Ge9n, and we hear it’s pretty awesome.