A New Response to Crisis? Jón Ólafsson on the Case of Iceland

Thomas Hintze

Few know more about democracy and governance in Iceland than Jón Ólafsson. Thomas Hintze interviews Ólafsson, asking if it is fair to characterize Iceland’s “cutlery revolution” of 2009 as prefigurative or leaderless.

Demonstrators bang pots and pans on the windows of the Icelandic Parliament. Credit: Joanna Kitchener

Few know more about democracy and governance in Iceland than Jón Ólafsson. Well before 2008’s financial crisis plunged the tiny nation into upheaval (what many would later call the “cutlery revolution”), Ólafsson, who is professor of philosophy at Bifröst University and a member of the Comparative Cultural Studies Department at the University of Iceland, had been studying Iceland’s social justice movements and their relationship to democracy and state power. So when the Icelandic government was forced to resign as a result of popular mobilizations in the winter of 2009, Ólafsson was there, closely monitoring the transition of power, the election of the Icelandic Constitutional Assembly, and the process that led to a new constitution in 2011. His paper on the subject, “Experiment in Iceland: Crowdsourcing a Constitution?” offers the most complete critique of the Constitutional Assembly’s methodology and process, recounting the movement’s ultimate failure to ratify a new constitution in the Icelandic Parliament.

Ólafsson and I corresponded electronically from June 18 to June 29, 2014 to construct this interview. Our conversation revolved around questions of prefiguration and the revolution in Iceland while addressing other key matters such as the utility of mass mobilizations, the influence of performative politics, narrative constructions of the movement, and the enfranchising of radical identities in Iceland’s political system.

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Thomas Hintze: To start with, let’s get to the bottom of this: do you believe that it is fair to characterize the Icelandic Revolution of 2009 as “prefigurative” and/or “leaderless?”

Jón Ólafsson: If we go back to 2008-2009 we can see that the movements created in the wake of the financial crisis had organizers rather than leaders. They were leaderless in the sense that one cannot characterize them by any particular leader—some charismatic figure with demands or slogans. But the movements created the environment that made it possible for some new leaders to emerge. The crisis meant that the general public was receptive to much more radical ideas and demands than had been the case before. So the social movements served as a channel into politics for people who were able to go for it, as “ordinary” politicians stood by. This is why the situation was truly revolutionary. Power had evaporated from the hands of officeholders and into the streets—or that’s at least how it felt. As to whether the movements were prefigurative in the usual sense of the word—I don’t think so. Within the movements there were radical ideas but radical in the traditional sense: general demands for better administrative practice, transparency, more deliberative democracy, along with specific demands, such as that the government resign (which it eventually did), that the director of the Central Bank be fired (as he eventually was).

TH: Some critics have neatly folded the protests in Iceland into narratives about the cycle of uprisings that began in 2011, and therefore much of the analysis about Iceland has failed to recognize key differences.

JÓ: Right. Iceland doesn’t fit in that narrative. But, you see, the thing is that the protest in Iceland was very spontaneous: it was easy for the organizers to set up a simple structure and make it work. This consisted of public meetings every Saturday in the Parliament square where new people would give talks, three each time, or holding town meetings that were sometimes directly broadcast on national TV. Publicity was easy, participation enormous. Participants and organizers gave interpretations of their own actions afterwards. And they were happy to accept the available narratives being offered to them.

A close and sharp look at many of the events will reveal skilled organizers behind the scenes.

A close and sharp look at many of the events will reveal skilled organizers behind the scenes. That’s the case with the series of town meetings, some of which were broadcast live on national TV. It’s also the case with the meetings in front of the parliament where Hörður Torfason, the musician, provided the brains and effort necessary to give them a structure and meaning. Some of those who later became MPs or were elected to the Constitutional Assembly made their first appearance at one of the meetings Hörður organized every Saturday for most of the winter. But the sharp look may cause some disappointment.

TH: What do you mean by disappointment? Disappointing for whom?

JÓ: I think that Icelandic activists have been influenced in interesting ways by interpretations offered by external observers. They have in some cases used narratives offered by observers to reinterpret their own goals and motivations. But that puts an ironic twist on Icelandic democratic activism as such: The concept of crowdsourcing was for example never mentioned in the preparatory stages of the Constitutional Council (CC). When external observers insisted that the constitutional draft was being crowdsourced, CC members partially adopted it to describe their efforts. Thus the Icelandic movement has grown into the global narrative and to some extent refigured itself to embrace it. But outside observers tend to overlook this and conclude that the Icelandic movement either played a leading role in a global sense or was spontaneously acting in parallel ways to movements elsewhere.

TH: Judith Butler has written about the “performative politics” of recent movements, specifically the performance of dispossession. Was there a kind of performative politics at play in Iceland?

JÓ: Dispossession played an important role in the original protests and was also the element that continued to fuel discontent. This was true of dispossession in the sense that the crisis created a strong sense of betrayal by those who may have thought before the crisis that they were citizens in a democratic country, but saw themselves after the crisis as having in fact been powerless subjects. It was also the case in a more acute and palpable sense for those who actually faced personal bankruptcy because of the mortgage loans based on foreign currency that were common in Iceland at that time and obviously became an intolerable burden for middle class people when the Icelandic króna lost most of its worth.

One of the results of this second kind of dispossession was the creation of an association of homeowners, “Defenders of Home Interests,” which continued to press the government to create solutions for people who had technically become bankrupt in the crisis. The association successfully argued that the government as well as the banks assumes at least a part of the responsibility of paying the debts of homeowners.

TH: The movement in Iceland certainly did not fully eschew power, but in fact engaged with existing structures in an effort to shift power within the system.

JÓ: Right. Actually I think that after the government stepped down in January 2009 and a new left wing coalition took power, most of those who had been engaged in protest action and new movements were willing to work with the government. After all it was generally believed that a revolution had brought this new government to power, and that it would act very differently from past governments. Sadly, I think that assessment was only partially true. The perception now is that the new government failed to change policy-making and decision processes in fundamental ways. But on the whole protesters channeled their effort into established political frameworks. Discontent with the performance of the new government increased interest in new political parties rather than to more intense grassroots activity.

TH: What were some other strategies the movement used during the revolution? Were they what we might call “traditional” or did they mark a departure from the way movements have previously organized?

JÓ: This is a central question in my view. I am inclined to say that the movements did not depart in significant ways from traditional strategies. That said, one must also point out significant characteristics of the Icelandic movement which are a departure from the traditional. One is communication between very different groups. The first wave of protests brought together people who had earlier perceived themselves as opponents. Later diverse groups converged on projects such as the Constituent Assembly and various kinds of democratic innovation (e-platforms such as “Better Reykjavík” e.g.).

My feeling is that the grassroots activism which as such lasted maybe for a couple of years created a new kind of political awareness which brought new groups into politics, groups that had earlier been effectively marginalized because they could not connect to political parties or elites. The people brought into the Reykjavík City Council by Jón Gnarr, a comedian who led the Best Party and was mayor of Reykjavík 2010-2014, are a good example. Did they bring radical ideas or radicalism to this body through their sweeping victory? No, they did not. But they brought an entirely new kind of people in.

People wonder in what way these new parties differ from traditional center-left parties. I think they should not be looking at policies or ideologies to answer that question, but rather acknowledge that a stagnated political system such as the Icelandic one, has now been thoroughly infiltrated by people who have perspectives that radically differ from old style politics. This includes a disdain for the argumentative and hostile kinds of communication that people often take for granted in everyday politics.

TH: Once we separate the Icelandic Revolution from the uprisings of 2011, what lessons should students of social movements learn?

JÓ: There are really some interesting lessons about activist-establishment relations (if we can put it that way), which I think can be drawn from the Icelandic experience. Given that motivation in Iceland was mainly to reform and change political culture I think the movement can be seen by and large as a success. Now it is commonly acknowledged that the movement has made mass mobilization much more likely when political decisions are met with general discontent. Politicians therefore must be aware of a larger arsenal of extra institutional tools with which their policies can be challenged, for better or worse, whenever they are dealing with difficult and contested issues.

On the other hand the movement also showed the limitations of mass participation. The Constitutional Assembly was able to produce a complete constitution but its activist edge alienated it from establishment politicians, which to the end robbed it of the support that was needed to actually have the constitutional bill passed. The successes and failures also illustrate clearly the enormous impatience inherent in mass mobilization. The goals that were announced in 2008-2009 were simple: throw out the government, get rid of the Director of the Central Bank and the director of the financial supervisory authority. Once these demands had been met things quieted down.

TH: Iceland has been in the news most recently for protests against the government’s decision to abandon talks to join the EU. The public outcry seemed less to do with the decision and more to do with the exclusionary process that led to the decision.

JÓ: It has been a very interesting experience to see protest reemerge. Sure, it was about the process, not the content. But I would like to put it into a more general context. The protest action of 2008-2009 made the public see how fast, forceful (yet peaceful) protest action can paralyze the government.

Moreover: the 2008-2009 protest clearly had created a channel, one could even call it a mechanism, through which swiftly organized petitions together with meetings and enormous social media activity, simply could build up strong public resistance.

TH: Before the revolution, how was power distributed among Icelanders? How did that change after the overthrow of the government?

JÓ: The simple answer is to point out that before the crisis a group of wealthy people and their leading managers had become the real power in Iceland. This new power was not hidden. The argument was openly made that through the international financial activities of our banks and businesses the country was growing rich and powerful far beyond what anyone could expect on an island in the North-Atlantic with 330,00 inhabitants. It was therefore surprisingly easy to convince the public that serving internationalized Icelandic businesses and financial institutions should be a governmental priority—the top priority in fact. After the crisis this power structure has simply disappeared. It will not be possible in the near future for business to gain such enormous influence and to hold the government hostage. The power has shifted to politics again.

"A Boy". Taken on Jan. 25, 2009, a day before the government ceded power to a new coalition government. Credit: Joanna Kitchener.
“A Boy”. Taken on Jan. 25, 2009, a day before the government ceded power to a new coalition government. Credit: Joanna Kitchener.
"A Boy". Taken on Jan. 25, 2009, a day before the government ceded power to a new coalition government. Credit: Joanna Kitchener.
“A Boy”. Taken on Jan. 25, 2009, a day before the government ceded power to a new coalition government. Credit: Joanna Kitchener.

Thomas Hintze is a writer, reader, photographer, and Know Your Rights trainer interested in social movements at the intersection of art, literature, and culture. He is a contributing editor at Tidal Magazine and a doctoral student at UC Davis in the English Department.