What if Americans protested like Icelanders?

When the Icelanders heard that their leader socked away money in an off-shore account in the Virgin Islands, 10,000 of them packed the Parliament Square on April 4 in Reykevik to demand his resignation. That’s partly because Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson had been urging his people for years to show their faith in their country by keeping their money at home. The surge into the streets also represented the Icelanders’ view that they need to use nonviolent direct action to maximize their power.

If Americans were to protest in the same proportion as Icelanders have done, we would put 10 million of ourselves on the streets at one time. What might become possible?

A few years ago, I drank coffee on Parliament Square with Hørdur Torfason — the leader of the Icelanders’ uprising of 2008-09 — interviewing him for my forthcoming book, “Viking Economics.” He suggested we meet at his favorite cafe, which faces where the action took place. The nonviolent campaign he led drove out not only the prime minister but the government itself, and put bankers in jail.

Back then the campaign was called “the pots and pans revolution” because people escalated by banging on kitchen utensils so loudly that parliamentarians couldn’t hear each other inside the building. That action was not a one-off protest; it was part of a sustained campaign. Hørdur gave me a blow-by-blow account, which I relay in the book.

The stakes in 2008 were far greater than individual corruption. Iceland’s was the first modern economy in which virtually the entire banking sector went belly up, and making it worse, the currency collapsed. Unemployment and inflation shot up. Many Icelanders, encouraged by the economic bubble presided over by their government and banks, had spent their savings and had nothing to live on. Because the government had lowered taxes, another mistake frequently made by neoliberals, Iceland had no “rainy day fund” for contingencies. Some in the Western mass media described Iceland as a failed state.

In my book, I share Hørder’s exciting narrative of how Icelanders forced out their government and put bankers in jail, but their people power was just as significant in the follow-up negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. Icelanders couldn’t even withdraw their money from the ATMs, much less pay their mortgages. Yes, the tiny country (population 320,000) simply had to get bailed out, but Icelanders’ new government was a coalition of social democrats and green socialists who refused to accept from the IMF the usual neoliberal prescription of austerity.

Negotiations were intense, but because the new coalition was backed by ordinary Icelanders’ intense nonviolent campaign, the government could negotiate with the IMF a deal unheard of anywhere else in the world.

Iceland then implemented a leftist economic strategy and the country made a dramatic recovery. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman contrasted Iceland’s approach with that of the United States, the United Kingdom and most European countries after 2008, writing, “Where everyone else bailed out the bankers and made the public pay the price, Iceland let the banks go bust and actually expanded its social safety net.”

In the current moment we don’t know if Icelanders will deal with their corruption by waging a direct action campaign, or content themselves with a one-off event that ousted the prime minister. I was told by Thorvaldur Gylfason, a leading Icelandic economist, that his country has historically been more plagued by corruption than its squeaky clean Viking cousins.

Already in Iceland’s current crisis, however, we know enough to see the impact of 3 percent of a population willing to create “street heat.” If, in the United States, 10 million people – 3 percent of our population — took similar action, we would see what the kind of “political revolution” Bernie Sanders talks about actually looks like.

Americans are trending toward an understanding of how self-defeating it is to look for justice through the ballot box. If Icelanders had been resting their hopes on “the next election,” they, too, would wait in vain. Their understanding of power is not unusual among the Nordics.

When I research the legacy of Nordic people power I see how wrong we Americans are about the causes of their achievement of shared prosperity and greater equality. Typical guesses are homogeneity, or smallness, or having been historically well-off, of having unusually abundant resources. History shows any number of countries that are small, or homogeneous, or resource-rich, and experience mass poverty, injustice and tyranny.

In fact, only a century ago a majority of Icelanders, Norwegians and Swedes were poor. For decades desperate Norwegians and Swedes were fleeing their countries for the United States and elsewhere for a chance to earn a living. Those who remained at home decided to roll up their sleeves, supplement their inadequate electoral systems with nonviolent campaigns and push the 1 percent out of dominance. At that point they became free to abolish poverty, increase individual freedom and build a prosperous economy for all.

Denmark fights back against neoliberalism

One pay-off for the Danish people of their 1920s legacy of direct action showed up in the 1980s and ’90s. They, like the Brits and Americans of the period, experienced a push-back by a 1 percent that was not amused by the progressive period of the 1960s and ’70s. For one thing, in the ’70s the Danish and American nonviolent anti-nuclear power movements check-mated nuclear power. Clearly it was time in multiple countries to resume what billionaire Warren Buffett called the “class war.”

Inspired by Thatcherism, Danish conservatives tried in the mid-1980s to tighten the screws on the working class, and that’s where direct action came in. Danish leadership, having observed both the American and British labor movements on the defensive in the early 1980s, decided to take the offensive. They organized a large and extended strike in 1986-87 that largely prevented the conservatives from implementing a neoliberal program.

Their Norwegian and Swedish cousins could have benefited at that time from the example of Danish feistiness. A ferry-ride away, the 1 percent in Norway and Sweden persuaded governments to deregulate the banks, freeing the bankers to go wild and lead both countries to the economic cliff. Fortunately, the left re-asserted its good sense, seized the leading banks, fired the senior management, prevented the shareholders from getting a krone, and re-organized the financial sector in alignment with social democratic principles. A decade later, when 2008 found financial giants like the United Kingdom and United States tottering in a new banker-led disaster, the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish banks were clean and tidy.

Not a surprise to Dr. King

Martin Luther King Jr. famously told us: “Freedom is not free.” He knew that costly struggle is required to achieve justice, and he would not be surprised by what I discovered in my research about the essential role of direct action in the countries that have achieved the highest degree of justice, equality and individual freedom on the planet.

When the Nordics were poor and oppressed they did have free elections and intact parliamentary institutions – and also rule by the 1 percent. I learned from the famous Princeton study, even before the Citizens United ruling and the current flood of money in politics, that our situation has been similar to that of the Nordics a century ago: democratic pretense and oligarchic reality. Even at times when the Democrats control both houses of Congress and the White House, the oligarchic reality has remained in charge.

The track record of the descendants of the Vikings suggests a way forward. Happily, we can wake up, smell the coffee, and act.

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