Icelanders force accountability for banks — why can’t we?

Protests at the Icelandic parliament in January 2009. By OddurBen, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ever since Iceland’s economy collapsed in 2008, the country has been busy reinventing itself. The first step was to restore democracy through a turbulent nonviolent struggle, then to force resignations in the financial sector and secure a criminal conviction of their prime minister for dereliction of duty. Now they are exploring getting a new currency: the Canadian dollar.

If Icelanders think their traditional money has lost its legitimacy, why not adopt the euro or the U.S. dollar? Too much influence from the big banks of Europe and the U.S., they believe. Better to risk interference from the smaller and much better-regulated banks of Canada. (Canada, like the publicly-owned state bank of North Dakota, did far better in the 2008 crisis than most of the U.S. and Europe.)

For decades, Iceland was part of the “Nordic model” of social democracy, with the high standards of living, free university education, universal health care, full employment and other benefits. Like Norway and Sweden, in the late 1980s the Icelanders flirted with neoliberalism, but unlike their Viking cousins they went all the way. The right-wing party privatized banks, cut regulations and lowered the corporate tax rate. The banks, in turn, created a bubble through hysterical foreign borrowing, and the bubble broke in September 2008. Banks failed. Unemployment and inflation shot up, and crisis reigned.

In mid-October, the singer/songwriter Hörður Torfason stood in the public square in the capitol of Reykjavik with an open microphone, inviting passersby to speak. Every Saturday people gathered to speak and protest, to the point where 2,000 people gathered outside the parliament building on January 20. They banged pots and pans to disrupt the meeting of parliament – the “Kitchenware Revolution,” they called it.

The crowds grew to 10,000 — out of a total population of 320,000! — and the increasing turbulence forced Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde to announce that he and his cabinet would resign and new elections would be held. Although politicians responsible for Iceland’s financial life were resigning, the campaigners didn’t stop there; they demanded — and won — the resignation of the governing board of the Central Bank.

The social democrats came back into power and started to clean up the mess, with help from Sweden and Norway. Iceland was hurt and people had tough times. However, the social democrats refused to do what capitalist wizards expected. Instead of trying to pacify international investors, Iceland created controls on the movement of capital. Instead of initiating an austerity program, the government expanded its social safety net.

According to The New York Times, “Some economists have argued that the collapse of its banks forced the country to deal with its problems faster and aided a swifter recovery.” Iceland’s economy is expected to grow 2.5 percent this year and next.

But the mood of the cheated Icelanders was not, “Let’s move on.”

In March, Iceland opened a criminal trial against its former prime minister. Continues the same Times article:

Mr. Haarde was charged, in effect, with doing too little to protect the country against the depredations of its bankers as they pursued wildly expansionary lending that resulted in financial disaster for the country.

Haarde was found guilty. Former executives of the failed Kaupthing Bank have also been indicted.

The movement of Icelanders that rejected a European Union-style austerity program and instead put accountability where it belonged did not come out of thin air. Even while some Icelanders were trying to buy glamour through neoliberalism, others spent the years between 2000 and 2006 protesting the Karahnjukar hydropower project that the Icelandic 1 percent sponsored along with the Alcoa and Bechtel corporations.

Decades before that eco-justice campaign, Icelandic women shut down most of the nation for a day in 1975 to force passage of a civil-rights bill for women’s equality.

I see two big lessons that the rest of us can learn from the painful Icelandic experience. First, avoid assuming that activism is a “sometimes thing,” to be put aside after major victories are won. Icelandic activists achieved much but then almost lost it. As Canadian labor unions are fond of pointing out, “The struggle continues.”

Second, it is possible to take your country back from the mismanagement of the economic elite if your campaign’s strategy generates broad participation. Iceland mobilized no less than 3 percent of its population in direct action. For U.S. activists, that implies giving serious attention to campaign organizing and generating allies. The model of just occasional “mass bashes” doesn’t cut it.

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