anywhere you go, it’s the same cry
— The Maytones
When I arrived in Iceland nearly 7 years ago, I saw two distinct faces of the country. On almost every large hilltop stretching from Reykjavík to the airport were a half dozen cranes, blighting the otherwise gorgeous scenery in a perverse paean to over development which almost no one at the time thought necessary but everyone put up with. It seemed to demonstrate some Icelandic version of “Damn the torpedoes—Full steam ahead!” This might explain, among other things, the revival of whaling (a marginal enterprise at best), granting Bobby Fischer citizenship, and selecting in-your-face comedienne Agusta Erlendsdottir as their representative to Eurovision in 2006. Each of those actions (and others) drew condemnation and quizzical stares from their neighbors. However, Icelanders don’t care much for what outsiders think and don’t like being told what to do—even if it’s in their own best interests. So now we watch as the entire economy collapses and, in typical Icelandic fashion, barely a whisper is heard about how their version of neo-liberal IMF Republicans have driven them into uncharacteristic submission before the financiers of the world. It’s a sad time to be in Iceland, and my guess is things will only get worse.
Usually the only time Americans hear about Iceland is when some intrepid traveler returns to regale us with tales of lunar-like landscapes, stunningly fresh air and endless miles of unspoilt beautiful expanses. Now Iceland, making headlines on the Wall St. Journal, the New York Times, CNN, BBC, and others, returns to our attention as what the British press are calling a “test case” of failed capitalism. Pay attention America. In the past week, all three of Iceland’s biggest banks have essentially collapsed and been taken over by the government. Stock trading has been suspended, and a war of words is happening between Iceland’s banking czars and the Brits over the possibility that Iceland will not secure the money many Brits placed in another Icelandic bank, Icesave. By this time next month, it is betting odds that the Icelandic Kronur will be an historical relic, the IMF will have bailed them out, and the adoption of the Euro is near inevitable. Not to mention all those typical bailout conditions the IMF levels to the Third World like stringent “austerity measures” and other cheerful sounding destructors of formerly independent people around the world.
It is now becoming clear that Iceland (a country so fiercely proud of its identity that the novelist Halldor Laxness, 1955 recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature won for was appropriately titled, Independent People) is no more independent in almost any but the most perfunctory ways. This is because the criminal class who privatized the banking system, creating for the first time since the Middle Ages a class of ultra-rich who could afford to buy soccer clubs in England, and get Elton John to sing at their birthday parties, are now begging Russia to lend them 4 billion Euros (5.8 billion dollars) to help them weather a crisis they caused. On top of that, it is near certain that the IMF will step in like they have done in many countries and extract further concessions sure to be painful to that delicate ego which clings to a proud independent streak.
In other countries, a “throw the bums out!” mentality would be heard and swiftly acted upon. So far, nothing of the sort is playing out here. That might be because since gaining their independence from Denmark in 1944, the Independence Party, which has dominated the political scene since then, cunningly plays right into the myth of Icelanders as an independent people that Laxness so beautifully wrote about almost 60 years ago. But the nostalgic retention of such an image is dangerous. Especially when reality bites. Holding on to this image, by constantly allowing the Independent Party to rule, even in coalition with other parties, only insures that so long as it’s done under the guise of maintaining this myth of independence, Icelanders will close their eyes to the apparent thievery that goes on under their noses. They would do well to try something new. Quickly.