From Iceland — “Don’t Make Iceland a Caricature of American Capitalism”

“Don’t Make Iceland a Caricature of American Capitalism”

Published September 22, 2006

“Don’t Make Iceland a Caricature of American Capitalism”

Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson is one of Iceland’s most experienced politicians. The former leader of the Social Democrat Party was a Member of Parliament from 1982-1998 and served as the Minister of Finance (1987-1988) and later as Minister of Foreign Affairs (1999-1995). After withdrawing from national politics in 1998, Hannibalsson served as Iceland’s ambassador in the USA until 2002 and subsequently as Iceland’s ambassador in Finland, from 2002-2005.

Hannibalsson has recently returned home to Iceland, and although he is not an active participant in Icelandic politics, he is as vocal as ever on political issues. A Grapevine reporter met with Hannibalsson recently and asked him a few questions on the Icelandic and the international political landscape.

/// First, let me ask you about the merger of the political parties on the left wing of Icelandic politics. You were instrumental in the creation of Samfylkingin, the Social Democratic Alliance, which was intended to be a joint venue for people from the left wing. Soon thereafter, another left party emerged, the Leftist-Greens. Recently, Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, leader of the Leftist-Greens, has flirted with the idea of a closer cooperation between the two left parties in the 2007 elections. Where does the merger on the left stand today and has the political landscape, concerning the political parties, changed much since you left Icelandic politics?
– It is very dangerous for democracy when the party system is such that one small party, hungry for power, with no other political agenda than maintaining power, can become such a parasitical creature that it is impossible to form a government coalition without them. The Progressive Party has become such a party – once upon a time, this was a political movement with ideals. They fought against the urbanisation of this country and stood up for the farmers and the countryside. That was then, but those times are over. We are left with this strange phenomenon, the Progressive Party. For sanitary reasons an operation is called for. This party has become a malignant tissue in the body politic.

Why do I say this in relation to the merger of the left? Because the shortcoming of our political party system has always been that Icelandic voters have never known what kind of government they will get after the votes have been counted. I am a spokesperson for the social democratic model, but those of us who have thought along those lines have never been able to assume what the results of elections would be, or more accurately, what those results would translate into after the elections. That has usually been decided by something entirely different than a sensible interpretation of the votes. [Chairman of the Leftist-Green, Steingrímur J.] Sigfússon has said that we have to give the voters a clear option between the government coalition and the government opposition. I agree. This is important.

If it is possible to create circumstances where people can choose between the current government coalition that has been in power for 12 years now and the opposition as an alternative, that would be good for democracy. This would, by the way, fence off the Progressive Party in particular. Before every election, they hire an ad agency to run their campaign and claim they are going into the elections without any prior obligations. They should not be allowed to get away with such trickery.

Sigfússon, in saying that the opposition intends to form a coalition government if they receive the popular vote, is also saying that if you intend to vote for this ad agency, you should be aware that they are not going into the elections without prior obligations. The opposition is saying: “We regard the Progressive Party as a permanent parasite on its host, the Independence Party, and we will not let them get away with any trickery.” This is what the Progressive Party has become, and we have to face it. That way, they will not be able to trick people with new promises and fancy ad campaigns. This is important for the health of our democracy.

But another question is: Are we willing to trust the opposition to take over? A big drawback in our election system is that the renewal process among the political candidates is too slow. I believe the Social Democratic Alliance needs to put new people around [party leader] Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir. People from other venues who have shown that they can handle governmental responsibility.

/// Are you talking about bringing in people from outside of the Social Democratic Party then? Bring in someone from the business sector or…?
– Well… whether they come from outside the party or the business sector is not really the main concern. I will give you an example. I want [university professor] Stefán Ólafsson to enter politics. Why? He is very qualified and has in the last few years demonstrated through his research what the opposition has failed to do, that under the governance of the current coalition, Iceland has been moving fast towards becoming a caricature of raw American capitalism. Iceland has been moving away from what we have been, a Nordic welfare state, towards becoming the most inequitable country in Europe. It is the role of social democrats to stop this. No one is better suited for leading this charge then Stefán Ólafsson. He has demonstrated this process in his studies, better than anyone else, with professional methods and arguments no one has been able to refute. And we can see the response; they bring out their attack dogs against him, trying to undermine his honour and credibility as a scholar. This is standard dirty politics. But they have not succeeded. People trust Stefán Ólafsson and they know he has no other agenda than revealing the facts of the matter. This is the kind of candidate we need. And we need to find a few more like him.

I am sick and tired of this travesty called primary elections, which we have adopted from America. It makes no sense. It does not fit into our electoral system of proportional representation. During my stay in the U.S., I saw clearly how democracy in that country has become paralysed. Democracy has been taken hostage by the rich and by wealthy corporations. Most American politicians are bought by commercial interests. I can hardly imagine a more pathetic life than being a member of the House of Representatives in the United States Congress. There is almost no political discourse in their home states. They are elected almost solely on their ad campaigns, where the trick is to attack the honour of your opponent. That requires big ad agencies and costs a lot of money. To go through this process, you need to raise money, and you get the money from those who use it to buy power. After the campaign, you are over your head in debt. The first year is spent repaying that debt, and the second year is spent acquiring new debts for the next campaign. I personally know more than a few of those poor men who have gone through this ordeal. First of all, it is a personal misfortune to be involved in this, and second, it is the antithesis of everything we should call democracy. This is plutocracy; money talks. And the public has lost all faith in this system. Hence they do not even care to vote anymore.

/// You mentioned the slow renewal process. Would you agree to impose term limits on how long people could stay in office in Icelandic politics?
– Of course the ideal would be if participation in politics were to be a civic duty instead of being regarded as a punishable act where one is sentenced for life. It would be ideal if everyone regarded public service as something worth making small sacrifices for. But that is not how it is in the real world. Most people are glad for not being a party to this dirty business. Yet, others are raised by the political parties, almost from their infancy, as political mercenaries. Pointing out the U.S. again, there was a right-wing wave there a few years back, when the Republicans finally won back the House in 1994. One of their campaign issues was to limit the number of years in office, no more than two terms, and many supported the idea in the name of democracy. At the time I gave it a lot of thought and concluded that this was yet another nail in the coffin for democracy. Why should we automatically force out someone who by sheer hard work has succeeded in earning the trust of the people, to be replaced by someone who has never been put to the test? This is not something that should be tied to regulation or stipulated by authority. This is the job of the voters themselves. It’s called democracy.

/// You served as an ambassador from 1998 until this year. Did you find that Icelandic politics changed a lot during your time away?
– Yes. And our society itself has changed profoundly. The whole time I was away, for eight years, we had this right-wing government coalition of what I refer to as the twin-party. On the left wing, the social democratic party I had envisioned after the changed world order following the fall of the Soviet Union has not been as successful as I had hoped. Another party sprung up to the left of us and is doing well. This is the format. I would have thought that we would have a new generation of politicians taking charge, but we don’t see much of them yet. Perhaps the younger generation is disinterested in politics. But I believe politics reflect society in general; Icelandic politics are acquiring more and more characteristics of the American plutocracy.

Look at the media. What is the constant subject of the media here in Iceland? Money, money, money. Who is the wealthiest today, and who was the wealthiest yesterday? Who sold this? Who bought that? In my days as a politician, I criticised the media for not paying enough attention to the economy, the media was so caught up in politics that there was no space devoted to discussing how different industries or companies were doing. Now it is the complete opposite. Political discussion has become something without substance, an afterthought. The new objects of worship in our society have become the nouveau riche.

There we have experienced renewal, in the financial sector. There we have seen a new generation emerge. The question is, is this a positive evolution? Do we want to live in this kind of a society? This is one change. Another change is related to globalisation. Iceland has become a multicultural society, which it was not only a few years ago.

/// The big social democratic party you envisioned, do you have any explanations as to why it has not emerged?
– There are of course a multitude of explanations. The party is still in its infant stages. There is also some old history still at work here. The left wing in Icelandic politics was split down the middle during its early years, following the Russian revolution. The left had to choose whether to pursue social democracy or the Communist utopia. For the rest of the century the left was split. It takes time to heal those wounds. But we cannot hide behind those excuses forever. The past should be squarely behind us.

/// What do you see as the main difference between these two movements on the left in Iceland?
– In principle, not much. Both parties are supposed to safeguard the public’s interest, and both, I believe, sincerely support the principal ideals of the social democratic model, of equal opportunity, the demand for a strong democracy, ideas that the democratic state has a central role, a healthy scepticism towards the market as the answer to every problem. The market is an efficient servant but a rude master. There is a strong tendency in the market for the capital to concentrate a few hands, leading to imperfect competition and even monopoly. The market needs to be regulated in the public interest. This is all part of the social democratic way of things.

I believe all social democrats are environmentalists. Does that mean that I am willing to agree with all the extreme bullshit I hear from the environmentalists’ camp on their love for the highlands? Of course not. I care about people primarily. But in the long term, people need a healthy natural environment. In that sense, I do not see this as a problem. I hear extreme views on both sides that I disagree with, but the fundamental truth is that we need coherent natural resource policies and employment policies that can coexist. We need to maintain employment and income, but we cannot do that by focusing on short-term solutions. Right now, it is time to say: enough! We are not going to use all our natural energy resources to sell them to a few multinational aluminium corporations. The world is undergoing a technical revolution in the energy field. There is an ongoing crisis with fossil-based energy and it has already become unsustainable. We are already in the final stages of an obsolete technology. There is an ongoing intensive search for future solutions although we cannot yet tell exactly what the outcome will be. We need to preserve our energy resources for more sensible use in the future. We should not spend it all on aluminium. More benign alternatives will present themselves in the future. Sustainable policies on the environment need not split the left. Europe is a different story. The Left-Greens would be well-advised to renew their thinking on Europe.

/// Let me interrupt you for a moment there, we will return to Europe in a moment, but I want to pick up on something you just said. Many people fear that if rumoured plans to privatise the National Power Company, along with the damming rights belonging to the company, are realised, the company will be bought up by a big energy-sensitive multinational company, which will use the company to sell cheap energy to its own production line while consumers will be left with the costs. Do you think this is something we should worry about?
– This is exactly why I said that natural resources and employment policies need to go hand in hand. This is a very real and grave danger. Our natural resources, along with our human capital, are the most valuable thing we have; it is fundamental to ensure that our natural resources remain publicly owned. This is something we managed with our fishing resources in principle, even if the execution is a bit different.

/// Let’s pick up where we left off with the European issue.
– Yes, I am a firm believer in internationalism. I despise nationalist demagoguery. The biggest evils humanity has experienced have masqueraded in the disguise of nationalism and the supposed superiority of certain races or nations above the rest of us. When fanatic nationalism is tied up with fundamentalist religious indoctrincation, as is the case in the USA and the Arab world, all hell will break loose. Internationalism is not the same as not appreciating one’s country. To me, the issue Iceland is facing in regard to European cooperation is not primarily an economic issue. It is an existential issue. It is a question about our place in the world in the future. Where do we belong? Do we really want to be a U.S. satellite? Over my dead body! It is against everything we stand for.

I believe that even if some positive changes occur in U.S. politics, the basics will not change much. America has become a megalomaniac empire on an expansionist stage. This presents real dangers to the rest of the world. The basic interest of a small, unarmed nation is to be on the side of international law. The rule of law was the greatest invention of human kind in the last millennium. It is our most precious heritage from the ancient republic founded at Þingvellir in 930. A small nation with such heritage should always seek solutions to international problems based on the rule of law. This is the difference between America and Europe: Europe is post-imperial; America is at the peak of her imperial ascendancy. The European vision, to make it impossible for European nations to wage war by pooling their sovereignty in supranational institutions, is a revolutionary idea. This is a new idea in the history of humankind. If it proves to be successful, it will be a roadmap for the rest of the world in the future.

Perhaps I am being too optimistic, but I think we are gradually heading in the right direction. Through European integration, we have helped more nations break free from dictatorship and oppression and establish democracy than anyone else: Spain, Portugal, Greece, Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. All of this without firing a single shot. Compare this with the record of the relations of the U.S. with her neighbours in Central and South America.

/// You mentioned Iceland as an American satellite nation, and America as a megalomaniac empire. Do you think Iceland has gone too far in following the U.S. in international politics?
– Yes. I was very positive towards the United States in the past. The United States has after all done a lot of good in the past. They helped Europe defeat the totalitarian menace. Liberal America was an authentic inheritor of the European enlightenment and therefore a natural ally against totalitarianism during the Cold War. But it was an errant giant. The Vietnam War was the first indication of their hubris. The times when America was the promised land of opportunity for the poor and oppressed have already passed. The U.S. has become the most unequal country in the world, totally dominated by an arrogant, plutocratic elite. The accumulated wealth of this elite is of staggering proportions. So is their arrogance. The military doctrine of the Bush administration is a good example. In it the United States government assumes the right pre-emptively to apply force whenever and wherever the government sees fit without consultation or restraint by anyone else in the world. It is imperialist self-glorification at its worst. To serve this purpose the U.S. spends more on its military than all other countries in the world combined. The declared aim is to be militarily dominant everywhere, on land, on the seas and in space. They have started a new cold war with the aim of controlling the utilisation of the most valuable raw materials and energy sources of the planet. They have identified China as their future enemy and reorganised their network of military bases around the globe to meet that perceived menace. This new American imperial elite needs no allies. And it has been the Bush administration’s unqualified achievement to unify the whole world against this arrogant power.

America has declared an all-out war against terrorism. Despite all the power exerted, they have so far failed miserably in this war instead of building an alliance with democratic forces for eradicating the causes of terrorism, poverty, oppression and hopelessness; they have almost exclusively relied upon military force. The invasion of Afghanistan was justified but the implementation has failed. The invasion of Iraq was totally unjustified. Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi army was devastated during the first Gulf War and was a threat to no one except the Iraqi people. Saddam Hussein was a dictator, a murderer, a torturer and a thief. But he was a U.S. ally. As Roosevelt himself said about another U.S. pawn, the brutal dictator Somoza: “He is a son of bitch, but he is our son of a bitch.” Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. He kept religious fundamentalists in Iraq under firm control. What Bush has accomplished is to plunge Iraq into a bloody civil war and a recruitment camp for fanatic terrorists. His policy has been completely counter-productive. He is the first president of the U.S. to give the religious fanatics in Israel a free hand in their settlements in the occupied territories, for obvious and cynical domestic reasons. His political base is among religious fundamentalists in the deep South and the Likud fundamentalists in Israel. Jointly they have made the dire predictions of the clash of civilisations more menacing than ever before. Not only is the record of the Bush administration a dismal failure by its own criteria, but it will take those who inherit this mess a long, long time to make up for it.

/// By some means, the U.S. still managed to get support from some European countries, Iceland included, for the Iraqi invasion.
– Yes. It is the most shameful stain on the record of the Icelandic republic since its foundation. What are our most fundamental national interests in international relations? That we follow international laws and procedures and demand that others do the same. It goes against our most basic interests as a nation to support unjustified acts of aggression. We must always and everywhere support those who seek peaceful diplomatic solutions based on law and order. Hans Blix did this, and I admire him for it. This reflects the importance of the Nordic countries. The role of Sweden, Norway and Finland in international relations is exemplary. Why are those nations trusted? It is because no one feels threatened by them. It is the role of the Nordic countries to act as mediators in conflicts and to be the advocates of non-violent peaceful solutions. We belong within this group; they are a role model for the small nations of the world.

This is what post-war Europe has been striving for. After experiencing the horror of two world wars caused by totalitarian states, we have reached the European ideal as a conclusion where the European nations take on the obligation of settling their conflicts without the use of force. This is where our hope lies; this is the way forward. The alternative is to descend further into a hopeless state of anarchy.

/// So, what happened? Why are we supporting these war efforts?
– Well, two men are said to have made the decision. One of them was the former prime minister, Mr. Davíð Oddsson, a strange and enigmatic character, a funny and artistic person, but at the same time completely unpredictable. Mr. Oddsson claims to be a bosom friend of President Bush. If he is, he really is one among a very select few who wish to boast about it. The other one was the then foreign minister Mr. Halldór Ásgrímsson. I know he did this in the naïve belief that this would guarantee the continued U.S. military presence in Iceland. As subsequent events have shown this was indeed a grave and naïve misunderstanding.

/// Let us move on to something else. Considering the fire you still have for politics, it is reasonable to ask, do you intend to return to politics?
– The short answer to that question is a simple one. I have already done my duty. I was a part of this “dirty business” for many years. I did my best, and I have no regrets. This means that I have no obligation to subject myself to the tough discipline of Icelandic politics during my sunset days. I have already told you about my doubts about the fitness of primaries to recruit worthy political leadership. It is a rather depressing charade. At worst it means the subjection of honest politics to plutocratic control behind the scenes. Not a very attractive proposition at all. It will at least take several wild horses to drag me into this process again.

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