Iceland: New thought and revolt on the streets of Rekjavik

Written by Josie Demuth

All artwork by Federico De Cicco

The Icelandic people sensationally booted out their government back in January (26th) after the country was left ravaged by the collapse of their privatised financial system last October. Since late last year, The Icelandic government had been under mounting pressure with thousands of people gathering outside parliament demanding that the government resign.

This turned into weekly mass riots (see video), with physical clashes with police and at times, 14-hour demos eventually forcing the disgraced elite to flee. Mr Geir Haarde has now made history as the first Government casualty of the global financial crisis - a legacy that he probably didn't have in mind when he buddied up with major global players. Since the Icelandic conservative government came to power eighteen years ago it has followed seriously dumb ambitions that were way out of its economy' league. It started off by handing over its three banks to government cronies, who then loaned borrowers up to seven times its GDP - which eventually caused a complete financial meltdown. Every family in Iceland lost their savings. Some lost everything. As you can imagine, there were some serious consequences of this financial devastation. One Icelander told me a deeply shocking and tragic story of when his friend went to pick up his child from nursery school a little late on the week that the banks crashed. He was bewildered when the staff hugged him in great relief. They ushered him into the staff room where three other boys sat. All three of their fathers had committed suicide that day.

The reckless handling of the Icelandic economy has also resulted in a whole money owing generation of Icelanders facing fragile times ahead. As Icelander Siggi Ponk tells us "everyone under the age of 25 is raised with the golden promises of the capitalist economy and party politics.. Many of those young people are in serious debt because that was the way of living. They are alienated. they would starve to death if the oil crisis would hit us now. The generation before them understands farming and fishing and would survive from the land if necessary."

Iceland boasts a minefield of natural resources which, if utilized to benefit the Icelanic public, could have proved advantageous in this crisis, however most of these have now been privatized. The island also relies heavily on the tourist industry with its phenomenal unspoilt nature. But the last few years have seen this snatched and irreversibly demolished by heavy industry whilst foreign multi nationals have emerged laughing (such as aluminium giants Alcoa with their 'Karunjukar dam project'). Despite many forms of protest, with even Bjork getting involved, many green-washed Icelanders and of course, the government failed to acknowledge the detrimental affects this could have on the environment and the citizen. A vast amount of glorious natural beauty disappeared under water to create a ginormous dam in 2006. When the banks went under, what was one Mr
Geir Haarde's first solution to the crisis? More heavy industry!

Since October '08 the realization of the acute seriousness of the betrayal of the government on its people had taken finally swept through the nation. The people hearded outside parliament to demand that it step down at once. "There were huge riots every day outside the governments offices, with thousands and thousands of people. In one case a guy mounted parliament with a Bonus flag (the countries supermarket chain) and burnt it! The police took him and arrested him but the crowd followed him to jail and kicked down the door and freed him!", says Olafur Paul Sigursson, founder of environmental campaign 'Saving Iceland', "everyone has become so radicalised - it's just incredible!"

Subsequent to the resignation of the entire cabinet, the country is now governed by a coalition of the Social Democratic Alliance' party and the Left-Green movement. Gisladottir - foreign minister in the previous government - has now appointed Johanna Sigurdardottir, the Social Affairs Minister, as the interim prime minister until new elections are held in May.

Sadly, the case of Iceland demonstrates the fact that it usually takes a full-on systematic collapse before people get it together and say enough is enough. January's IMF annual report predicted that the UK economy will be taking a 2.8% nose dive. Iceland is looking more and more like neo-liberalism gone bonkers in microcosm. On hearing about the UK's rough financial state one Icelander exclaimed, "The Brits should take a leaf out of our book and throw out their government!" Would that be such a bad idea?

La Bouche gets in touch with some Icelanders to find out more and most importantly what else we can learn from this arctic chaos. We hear Reykjavik is a real hotbed for new political thought and ideas...

"People are fed up with the old system and want radical changes. The main thing is that capitalism has become unpopular. People are demanding a more active democracy in Iceland. The politicians are trying to convince people that they are still the only ones able to govern the country. The public is fed up with the political parties. There is a lot happening in the grass roots movements, but little seems to be happening with the politicians themselves. There is a new thought in the air of politics for the people, not for the big parties. At least something has started, we are still to see what will happen in the near future.
We have allready been hit by economic hit men from the multinational Aluminium Corporations. Now we have the IMF here and most people do not realize what that means. It's essential that we brake free from the IMF and the American corporations in order to succeed. I believe this will eventually happen. There are a lot of good ideas for a self sustained, better Iceland. We have more then enough natural resources for beeing totally self-sustained. We just need to stop waisting all our energy in aluminium.

I'm quite optimistic for the future. The public in Iceland has realised that matterial possesion is not what makes us happy. People have become more spiritual and have gone back to the old traditional values. People seem to focus more on the real value in life these days. Of course every family in Iceland lost a lot of their savings, many lost everything, but in a way nothing really happend. Like one banker, a young woman, said after loosing the house, the car etc. I still have my family, my friends, I havent lost anything that really matters. This seems to be the general attitude. For me this means allso that there is still hope for building a society which is not full of greed and envy etc."
Arnar Steinn Fribjarnarson

"At the moment, the world can only learn from our mistakes - unfortunately.
We have extremely valuable natural resources: clean water, geothermal heat, fish and a fertile soil. We have abused it all by either privatizing it or selling it to heavy industry.
Now, the greed has taken us down so deep that we are in bigger debt than most other western people. How stupid! We have idolized money and worldly possessions at the cost of our unspoiled nature.Being the least polluted country in Europe with the largest unspoiled nature area and a high level of high technology skills we had the chance of being the first self sustainable country in the world.Instead, we chose to put all our energy and effort into making money by fraud and vicious, capitalist plots. Hopefully, the world will also be able to learn from our constructive actions taken from now on. The most important is to sustain the earth we have borrowed from our children. It can feed all beings and by stopping the wheels of capitalism and activating the wheels of brother- and sisterhood, heading towards self sustainability. By doing so, we could become an example. We need a whole new economic vision, based on humanism." Helena Stefansdottir

"Politically the icelanders are quite helpless. For 600 years
decisions have been made for us. This is a ongoing process with the
IMF coming to our "aid." Many are angry and frustrated but there are
no social popular movements for people to join. The future is more
boring party politics with politicians taking care of their careers
first, this time with a leftist twist. There will be a few scattered
groups of activists and the good news is that activism is here to
stay. Many of us realised first now that the power of the people can
actully push governments but this did not turn into a popular
movement." Siggi Ponk

"The most fascinating thing was that this is the first time I have ever seen such a solid unity in fighting the system. This rebellion was of course long overdue but I think what woke most people up was realizing that no one is safe and the simple fact that the government didn't really care about the people. Socialist ideas have grown stronger and many are really questioning the meaning of democracy as well as our role in the world community. In the past 10-15 years or so we have seen some madness building. Too many people were getting too rich and too many were kept "comfortable" thinking they had money that never really existed. As everything has now crumbled people are realizing what it's like to really have nothing... and even worse, they have now found themselves in debt that they may never get out of. People like me, who have always struggled and never took part in the "good years", we know, and although, of course, we are feeling it with escalating food prices, higher interest rates and so on, we have seen this many times before. While everyone else was living comfortably, we were counting our change for a box of milk by the middle of the month. Personally, I don't fear." Laufey Olafsdottir

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