Published April 20, 2018
Birgitta Jónsdóttir is an Icelander with international name recognition. Perhaps best known to the rest of the world for creating the Pirate Party in Iceland, her history with Icelanders actually stretches back decades before that. She has used her talent and boundless energy to create projects ranging from poetry, activism, media reform and politics. Her uncompromising approach to everything she does draws supporters and detractors of equal passion. Earlier this month, she announced she was leaving the Pirate Party.
This should have surprised no one. Not only because Birgitta announced her intention to not run again when her term was finished – albeit the term in question finished earlier, with the collapse of the government – but also because that’s Birgitta’s way: as she put it herself: “I am a start-up person. I get crazy ideas, I get totally preoccupied with it, and I get it done. And then I just move.”
The Pirates went “from a movement to a political party”
But this wasn’t the only reason she left the Pirates.
“I felt I was just sort of the Cassandra there, and people weren’t ready to listen to what I had to say, and that’s fine,” she tells us. “You don’t push your ideas when they’re not welcome. I felt in a sense that I didn’t really fit in there, either. I don’t know if I fit in anywhere, to be honest. But I felt that my course as trying to do the things I originally intended to do, in parliament, had run its course. That journey was over. Primarily because there were very many signs that we would not be getting the new constitution, ever.”
Her decision to leave had more to do with just her place within the party, though; the party itself, she feels, has changed.
“One of the reasons why I left the Pirate Party is it was increasingly feeling like a political party, and increasingly less a movement,” Birgitta says. “It’s nobody’s fault, really, it just sort of happened. I tried to warn about it, and take certain steps, but it didn’t work. Maybe some day people will say ‘you were right’. Some people are saying it now. A lot of the people who established the party have left. And there’s not really been a lot of discussion about it because there’s just been so much drama behind the curtain. There was a deliberate decision to hide all drama because that’s not part of the political culture. So a lot of people think there’s been no drama, but that’s not the case. There’s been massive drama, and a lot of people that were the glue are gone. We have new people now, and maybe they’ll do tremendous things, but my criticism is this is not a movement; this is a party. I didn’t want to create a party.“
Learning the ropes
Birgitta emphasises that she never meant to get involved with establishment politics. Rather, she felt obliged to run in order to help the Civic Movement, a party she helped create from prominent people in the 2008-2009 protests, due to a large gender imbalance.
“I accidentally got into parliament,” she explains. “I had no intention when I was creating the party to run. That was not my objective. We couldn’t find women to run, apart from Margrét [Tryggvadóttir]. We had very little time, and were created shortly before the elections, so I felt I cannot be creating a force for a new Iceland with one woman against five men. It just really felt Old Iceland. A few weeks before elections, I ran as the leader in my constituency, and we were so busy. We had no money. We had people living in the streets collecting signatures for us. It was a difficult but amazing time. In the end, we got 7.2% of the vote, and suddenly we were in parliament. A bunch of protesters!”
Birgitta was not entirely a stranger to parliamentary politics at the time—she had briefly worked as a webmaster for the Left-Greens—but admittedly did not know much about the inner workings of Parliament. She quickly learned that, like high school, being new to Parliament means the cool kids don’t talk to you by default; you have to gain their friendship somehow.
“So I’m in parliament, for the tiniest party, and we didn’t know anything,” she says. “Nothing. And the other parties certainly used that against us. They were certainly not telling us things, which was really disgusting. The people within that structure were not at ease with us. They felt that we didn’t belong there. You can see that in how [Minister of Finance and Independence Party chair] Bjarni Benediktsson has talked about my political movements as like ‘unwelcome houseguests’”.
The Civic Movement, which later changed its name to The Movement, would end up retreating from Parliament once Birgitta had moved on. In 2012, she helped form the Pirate Party, and again won a seat. As before, the Pirates were the new kids, largely shunned by the more established parliamentarians. A big part of this, admittedly, is their refusal to align with either left or right, terms the party feels are outdated. This has drawn criticism that the party cannot be trusted.
“Which is completely bollocks,” Birgitta tells us. “It’s a cop-out. We shouldn’t be putting these things in the category of left or right. When you put environmentalism into “that’s just the lefties that need to think about that” that’s very bad. This is something that impacts all of us. I think the only workable difference left and right is if you want to privatise everything or not, or if you want to tweak taxes. Very old-fashioned stuff. We were trying to bring in new ways of dealing with stuff.”
Underlining this point is the fact that “we have the most left wing party with the conservatives in government. And they gave the conservatives the Finance Ministry. That tells you everything. How can you possibly trust a left wing party that paves the way for some of the most corrupt people in Iceland to be in power?”
Nonetheless, Birgitta saw an opportunity to change things for the better.
“To be honest, I knew very little about how things worked when I got in, and I’ve learned so much since then, which I intend to share,” she says. “You’ll remember before the crash that you had people educating themselves on fractional banking and these abstract concepts they’d never heard of before. At this time, social media was exploding. So in many ways, Facebook, before it put its tentacle in all of us, was a brilliant platform for a lot of countries to organise quickly and get to know a lot of stuff. Iceland got attention from around the world for having the most open and civically-involved constitution process. So I believed that if you could do that, then you would have changed the rules of the game permanently. That’s why the citizen engagement parts of the new constitution were so important, and many of us were lobbying for a constitution written by and for the people, and we specifically talked about the possibility for calling for referendums, transparency and so forth.”
It was during this time in Parliament, in both the Civic Movement and the Pirates, that Birgitta began to come to the conclusion that the system is hopelessly rigged. This would necessitate new approaches.
The brighter moments
This is not to say Birgitta views her time in Parliament as a waste of time. On the contrary, there are a number of moments she recounts positively. The common thread in all these is that she had used her access to parliamentarians to introduce them to more radical people and the ideas they had to share.
“I guess the biggest pivotal turning point for me, in politics and as an individual, apart from having children, of course, was when I was asked to speak on December 1, 2009, at an event for the Digital Freedom Society,” she says. “At this event were two relatively unknown guys from an organisation that most people didn’t know about but Icelanders did: Wikileaks. They were pushing an idea that co-founder of EFF and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow had talked about a year earlier, which was to make Iceland “a Switzerland of bits”, a digital safe haven. That one way for Iceland to rise out of our reputation that the “outvasion Vikings” had given us—this unbridled capitalism, this casino cocaine party that was going on—was for Iceland to give something back. The idea was to collect all the best laws in the world in order to create transparency. I was the only parliamentarian speaking there because I was the only geek in parliament at the time. After it, I basically said to Julian Assange, ‘let’s do this, I’d like to work on this with you guys’. What they had at that time was more knowledge on how to protect data from being removed by powerful people, and we started sourcing laws on transparency and privacy protection, and started taking a holistic approach to a field in law.”
This led to her creating the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative or IMMI. Knowing that, as a parliamentarian for the opposition, she had little chance of getting laws passed, she focused instead on parliamentary proposals—a sort of statement of intent for government action without outlining precisely how to put the intent into action—that got Parliament on board with such concepts as protections for whistleblowers, freedom of information, and removal of data retention, amongst other fundamental democratic principles.
This proposal saw the likes of Julian Assange and noted tech activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg speaking directly with members of Iceland’s Parliament, at Birgitta’s behest. They also put IMMI on blast around the world (“If there’s one thing Julian Assange is good at, more than anything, it’s to create hype,” Birgitta notes). Ultimately, the campaign was a success.
“I managed to get this unanimously passed in parliament, which was a miracle,” she says. “You don’t often get things passed in the opposition unless it’s something that one of the ministries are already working on.”
Nonetheless, problems in Parliament remained. Birgitta would soon begin exploring other options.
The broken car
People who have radical ideas but use reformist methods often find themselves frustrated. Many who have left Parliament have the sense that the deck is stacked against real change for the better. Birgitta likens Parliament to a broken car.
“A lot of people say that fundamental political change is like a marathon,” she says. “It’s not. It might be a marathon if you want to establish yourself like another party, and then you go into the system that is already corrupt, and it doesn’t matter what you do to try and fix it. You can’t. Imagine you are in a car, and the system is like this car. The car is broken, and the engine won’t start. It doesn’t matter who you put behind the wheel: a Formula 1 driver, a kid, a really honest and decent, a corrupt person—the car still won’t start. It’s not just expensive for the state; it’s expensive for society because we have less and less trust in the democratic institutions.”
The biggest disappointment, for people who want to see systemic change in Iceland, has been the quiet death of the new Constitution. Birgitta is convinced that no one in Parliament, neither on the right nor the left, really wanted to see substantial change to the system—or, to continue with the car analogy, parliamentarians were more interested in changing the driver than getting a new vehicle. There is more to it than that, though, as Birgitta explains.
“People get very preoccupied with their day to day lives,” she said. “They’ll be voting on taxes and stuff like that, and have much they’re hoping to get. They’ve forgotten about the financial crisis; that shock was forgotten for the majority of Icelanders. So they won’t be voting for parties promising constitutional change. They don’t really care. They just want to make sure they have enough to run their corporation family.”
This lesson would prove an important one. The creaking, plodding machine of Parliamentary politics is, she believes, what has begun attracting people to authoritarianism.
“And we’re seeing this everywhere,” she explains. “People are now, more and more, as we saw in the most recent elections in Hungary, leaning towards the strong leader who’s going to fix everything. The promises that speak both to their fears and their desires. Even if they know that they’re not going to deliver, it’s just a good feeling to know you have a Daddy that’s going to take care of you.”
The machine can’t be fixed; it can be replaced
But what if there were other ways of managing society; systems that do not offer a choice between simply parliamentary politics or totalitarian strongmen? Those other methods are what intrigue Birgitta the most.
“That’s why I was so preoccupied with this Committee for the Future in Parliament,” Birgitta says, referring to an idea already being used in Finland that has yet to take root in Iceland. “There’s no majority in it, it’s one person from each party, and we are acquiring information about various issues that we need to prepare for for the future. And we started to develop this future vision. Because whenever you ask people about how things are going to be in the future, people have no answers. And we are very much frozen in this deep-rooted fear that we’re in the end times. Which means that we lose the ability to be active and mobile because we feel ‘what’s the point?’ Every day is the possibility for the apocalypse. Today, we have all this information, and the best thing we can do is think ‘How can we move to fucking Mars?’ I mean, come on. We have paradise. We have this little blue dot and it’s amazing.”
Birgitta also has direct democracy very much on her mind, although her attention has shifted to the more localised level. Sites like Better Iceland and Better Reykjavík, where people can submit their own proposals, discuss them and upvote them in the hopes that they will be taken up in Parliament or City Hall respectively, are models she respects.
Birgitta is convinced that change is actually very quick to happen in Iceland, but people are also very quick to lose the thread, which is another reason why she believes strongly in a Future Committee.
“That’s why I always come back to this: if you want real, fundamental changes, they have to happen quickly,” Birgitta tells us. “You can change people’s opinions in Iceland like this. It’s so easy. Suddenly, everyone in Iceland has a Costco card. Nobody had even heard of Costco before it was announced they were coming to Iceland. Same with the MeToo movement, it happened very quickly. But if you’re not careful with these tipping point moments, then they will start to have a negative impact. We should rather pay attention to how quickly we lose focus in this country. Because we have real trouble finding our long-term vision.”
These days, Birgitta is living the way she always has: as a creator, and one with a long-term vision, but one who is no stranger to spontaneity, as her guest appearance at an Easter performance of Icelandic apocalo-goth electronic duo Hatari attests. That gig was booked with almost no notice, but it came to her as a breath of fresh air.
“Only in Iceland would this happen,” she says. “You go into this synchronicity. It was like a massive dose of D-vitamin after no sun for a year. I felt totally invigorated.”
Moving forward, Birgitta sees many possibilities. She is working on forming Democracy Without Borders, a group that will cull real-life models for direct democracy around the world, but is also interested in writing, podcasts, speaking as a keynote and more. Birgitta is hoping to inspire others to take similar paths, away from the status quo and into a newly imagined future.
“If I can do it, with all my limitations, then anyone can,” she says. “Dream big – just don’t dream only about material things. They can all go in a fire tomorrow. It’s the relationships you create that are important in life. Connect with your community.”
While what may exactly be around the corner for Birgitta may not be set in stone, she knows that she will remain true to herself.
“There’s so many things I would love to do,” Birgitta tells us. “I’ve always been more comfortable being my own boss, even if it means living below the poverty line, than having to do stuff that I disagree with. I have to flow in it. I have to feel that there’s wind in the sails. I was hoping I could just be hired and work for somebody else, but I think I have to recognize that I am a start-up person. I get crazy ideas, I get totally preoccupied with it, and I get it done. And then I just move on.”
A brief overview of everything Birgitta Jónsdóttir has been involved with is nearly impossible, but we’ve compiled some highlights here:
1989: Publishes her first book of poetry
1996: Organises Iceland’s first live broadcast on the Internet; wins best web personal web page of the year 1996.
Early 2000s: Becomes more prominent in activism: Iraq war, Free Tibet and Saving Iceland.
2002: Publishes the World Healing Book & the Book of Hope global anthologies.
2009: Forms the Civic Movement in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, gets elected to Parliament for the first time.
2010: Begins working with Wikileaks.
2011: Kicks off the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative
2012: Forms the Pirate Party, gets re-elected the following year, joins Chris Hedges and Chomsky in a lawsuit against NDAA/Obama and wins first round.
2013: Portrayed in The Fifth Estate, a film about Wikileaks.
2016: Selected as one of the most influential politicians in the world by Der Spiegel magazine.