A Hundred Days of (Muted) Rage

Activists of the world can take heart. Yesterday, Morgunbladid, the largest newspaper in Iceland announced the end of the coalition government responsible for the huge financial crisis that has rocked this North Atlantic island to its volcanic core. This event is relevant for a number of reasons, not least of which is the non-violent resistance which has now succeeded in forcing the downfall of a government whose leaders have been copying the American example in banking for years.

Icelanders, beginning shortly after the government intervened and nationalized the three largest banks upon their collapse, signaled their displeasure with the government and week after week were demanding that the entire cabinet step down, en masse. Well, they now have and it is a victory for democracy lovers everywhere.

Icelanders did it in their own peculiar way, though. While daily reports of violence in the Greek streets dominated foreign news coverage here, I sat in bemused fascination as the travails of one single rock was being debated with the intensity of a grainy JFK assassination video and the moral indignation of a soul-searching nation stunned at its new-found loss of conscience. What a contrast! It seems that in mid-December one police officer had allegedly been scratched by a rock tossed by an angry protestor. Home videos were scrutinized as to whom might have been the attacker and talk show hosts wondered aloud at the moral state of the nation, fearing the direction protests might be turning, and what that might mean for their people who are not known as a violent sort.

While Iceland has had more than its share of a violent past (can anyone say, Vikings?) it seems that the insularity and isolation of the country (and the occasional intervention of its Scandinavian neighbors over the years) has tempered the Icelandic temperament. This has forced typical tension releasing into arenas such as skiing, regular gym workouts and, for the insistent, drunken revelry from Friday to Sunday. But even the latter rarely descends into more than early morning shouting matches as displays of violence are rarely countenanced. In fact, in a recent conversation with Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade, she asked this writer to consider if Iceland had in fact, made the remarkable transition from a dominator mode of social relationship to a partnership mode. I will leave that discussion for another time, but the results are stunning. In just over three months, Icelanders have stopped cooperating, withdrawing their support for a coalition government seen as more concerned with holding onto power than working in the people’s legitimate interests. So the people took to the streets. Tentatively, of course, and with an Icelanders typical reserve, holding protests in front of the Parliament building on Saturdays, promptly and peacefully at 3pm. But the people came together.

While Athens burned into a maelstrom of ungovernable chaos, Icelanders, in roughly the same time period, politely listened to long speeches and, as the weeks progressed, increased their venting with the occasional egg toss and curse word. (One newly coined expression of their frustrated rage was “Fokking fokk!” laughable perhaps at first listen, but as near a violent expression as I’ve heard hear in nearly seven years). A couple of times small bonfires were lit and, as reported later, appeared to be evidence of violence against the Parliament. No such violence occurred, though. And as the recent tensions came to a head and the frustration boiled over even more, many protesters took to wearing orange ribbons signifying their “legitimate” protester status, as opposed to the occasional drunken lout eager to fight or create mayhem at will, something most Icelanders, pro or against the government loathe. Still the protests continued onward and Icelanders, oblivious to the cold and rain soldiered on bravely until, last week, on January 20, as the Parliament resumed meeting, the protests culminated in between 7-8000 people gathering (the US equivalent of 7-8 million). (This was the second time such a large gathering had happened in the course of this crisis.) Apparently, the die was cast: within a few days, the Business Minister resigned and the political blogging hit a fevered pitch, letting the politicians know their time was up. It has now precipitated the collapse of the government and the frenzied assembling of a caretaker government to lead until elections are held in May. Where this will go in the next few months is uncertain, (the Left-Green Alliance is certainly to be a major player in the new government) but the Icelandic example provides powerful instruction that, when a people reject violence and take up a struggle together, they can still actually win.

Rev. José M. Tirado is a poet, priest and writer finishing a PhD in psychology while living in Iceland. Read other articles by José.

16 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on January 28th, 2009 at 10:22am #

    tirado, it is nice to hear that at least in iceland working class can obtain significant change.
    in canada, we wld need at least 80% support to reverse our policies for alien pops like pal’ns, afghanis, iraqis, iranians. ossetians, abhasis, syrians and other darkie peoples. thnx

  2. JBPM said on January 28th, 2009 at 11:16am #


    You and I have had this discussion elsewhere, but I’ll ask my question here so that you and others may weigh in.

    Why does winning mean in this case? The Icelandic parliament has changed, certainly, which is a plus, but does the new parliament have any idea how to deal with the converging crises that we all (and not just Icelanders) face?

    My reading of the tea leaves says that the future (including the near-term) will look very little, if at all, like the past. I wonder what “winning” looks like in the context of peak oil, peak fractional-reserve banking, global warming, etc. If we get a new crew of dipshits who continues to pursue the same failed policies because they can’t admit to themselves and the rest of us just how bleak things are and how radically (and rapidly) we all need to change, how does this victory help?

    Thanks for any and all responses.

  3. Ron Horn said on January 28th, 2009 at 2:43pm #

    I hear you, JBPM, and I think that you, I, and many others who see this system as a failed system, will suffer through a period of impatience and alarm as the current masters of our economies continue to try to prop up this failed system. Being subject to the ruling classes’ pervasive mass media, I fear that the awakening minds of working people will lag some time after further economic destruction. Not sure how long after reading accounts of riots in Greece, Bulgaria, and other east European countries. These are incredible times that we’re living in.

  4. Devendra Bisaria said on January 28th, 2009 at 11:52pm #

    While certainly heartening to hear of peaceful protest, it must be in the context of the quality and ethics of the government and individual politicians as a class. Its not many years ago that 30 million people on the streets across the globe were waved off as a “focus group” by the by the self-appointed fount of all things democratic. There are countless instances around the world of politicians, once in power, ignoring popular opinion and arrogantly clinging to power at all costs, even unleashing the state machinary against protestors in the name of security and stability. Britain under Blair and Myanmar area just 2 examples.

    People anywhere usually resort to violence only when they have no choice, when their legitimate protest is ignored and when politicians are overtly corrupt. On that measure, I think, I find the Icelandic government’s action as admirable as that of the people.

  5. Rev. José M. Tirado said on January 29th, 2009 at 4:40am #

    J and Ron,
    I think one problem is in jumping ahead of the gun, so to speak, when faced with some successful action. Now, Iceland is not the United States (thankfully) and so caution is in order when making coomparisons. However, what has happened here is that the masses have gotten together and forced out a regressive group of politicians who led their country into a dumpster of so-called free market policies and now everyone is suffering. This is a trickle-up democracy in that sense and this augurs well for the possibility of change, hence my opening sentence. Will Icelanders be lulled into sleep again? Well, like all people, sure, it´s possible. But the potential selection of an interim Prime Minister (Jonina), a politician respected by all who has championed the rights of working people and who is universally regarded as beyond reproach, is a sign that from now until elections are held in May, Iceland will carefully examine the way business was done here and modify those actions which adversely impact average people over those which served to enrich the Independence Party and its cronies. That´s a start.

    Once elections are held, my guess is the Left-Green Movement (I keep mistakenly referring to it as “Alliance”. Sorry.) and the center-left Social Democrats will enshrine those good adjustments made in the transition and move towards a greater protective stance on social service spending which they can afford and curtailing loose rules on bankinig which they cannot. Does this address global warming, peak oil, or other macro problems faced globally? No. But what they have done is taken over their government.

    Icelanders, like most people everywhere, generally get back to doing whatever else they do once elections are held and decisions made. But one difference is they belong to unions (over 85%) and they regularly have their input on matters of vital importance. For too many years they trusted that the policies which allowed them easy credit, visible construction booms, second cars and frequent trips abroad on credit cards were based on sound ideas–no longer. So they will trim personal spending and get back to affordable, and more sustainable lives. Public transport will receive a boost, they are quickly moving to hybrid buses and electric cars and there are a number of other ideas in the pipeline being floated to make Iceland an even more environmentally respected nation than it already is. (I will write more about this later). So within the area they can affect most–their communities and their country, Icelanders will do better.

    Now, “we” will not get “new dipshits” if “we” stop putting them there in positions of power. But power is far more complicated than simply electing people to political office. How many here are in unions? How many organize ther workplaces (if they work)? How many are pushing their Congressional representatives into voting for the card check bill currently before them which would make it easier to join a union? That is one way. Another is meet regularly with local elected officials (or become one) and organize like-minded people on issues of concern. Another is to speak in churches and similar places where communities gather about the issues that concern you and take the names and email addresses of those who want to work with you.

    The bottom line is that fractional reserve banking, imperial wars, and global warming are not going to be affected too soon or too readily by yours or my little actions. But a greater democatic say into the wheels of power is a way to slowly turn aspects of the system towards areas that benefit working people more than they do now. That for me is a “victory” , is “winning.” And while the failed system moves inexorably towards reckoning, we can, if we choose to work together, as the Icelandic example demonstrates, make a significant difference in the lives of the very people we say we care about. Despair is the reaction of the powerless and the smug. We don´t have time to pretend we have no power, and this is no time to be smug. The Icelanders simply said, “No more” and they ended an era. Surely USAmericans can do likewise.

  6. Rev. José M. Tirado said on January 29th, 2009 at 8:36am #

    I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding here. When you speak of “the quality and ethics of the government and individual politicians as a class” — these are not aliens from outer space. They are Icelanders. Icelanders as a group rejected violence as a means to solve conflicts and decided to work out their problems peacefully. They don´t have some silly “right” to bear arms and the country gets maybe one murder a year (usually a sailor or drunken asshole) and the sttreets are safe for kids. As well, all Icelanders apparently agreed that the social contract must include generous paid maternity and paternity leave, 6+ weeks paid vacation per year, etc. They did this because there was a strong unionized workforce and no (recent) history of conquest and imperial domination over other people in distant lands and serious, murderous repression against parts of their own citizenry–unlike in the US. So that´s where there are some significant differences. The gov´t of Geir Haard, and before him of David Oddsson, were about as regressive as they come, by Icelandic standards, but even they knew there was no chance for them if they tangled too much with the social safety net system I just alluded to above.

    Now as for those worldwide protests. If the numbers of protestors stayed in front of the White House day after day, and the engines of commerce were stopped repeatedly in city after city (as the French are doing right now as I type this), then the gov´t. you have there would have done different things and done similar things differentluy. Maintaining such support is certainly a complicated affair in the US but one HUGE reason is the lack of unionization and that´s why I keep mentioning this. And while it seems to get no responses, ever, on this site, an otherwise engaged bunch of folks (pretty much all men) it is one issue I will continually repeat in articles and discussions like this one: you want change? Then organize. If the numbers of union members in the US were just double what it is now, say to 24%, you´d see a whole lot of different kinds of legislation that would benefit all of you who work there. France and Iceland are two heavily unionized societies and the people stick together over the masters regularly. Concessions weren´t just given to the people–they were won by struggling .That is worth thinking about–and replicating.

  7. Don Hawkins said on January 29th, 2009 at 8:44am #

    What did we see last night in the House? What we saw was people using instinct to overcome reason and as we all know it should be the other way around. The GOP why do they do this and the other side just not as much? I think it has something to do with the marbles and who get’s to control the marbles and they don’t like each other that much. Do the people who control the marbles for say the last 80 years do they know what they are doing and that is both sides, no but in the twenty first century that is very clear. Now the people in control of the marbles think that if the other side get’s control they will do the same as they do just have the marbles and not do it as well, what. This instinct thinking is happening because those marbles are a powerful force and the people that get those marbles after a certain point kind of look at the World in a different way. I am being nice. Of course they think this is just the way the World works, oh boy. In only a few years how the Earth works will be very clear. After a certain point in this marble thing the people who have them don’t care about impressing the people who don’t have the marbles but the game becomes impressing other people who have the marbles this worked sort of for along time but now to keep doing that the story has a very bad ending and the have and have more people really don’t like each other that much anyway how could they it doesn’t work that way. To do what is needed a new way of thinking is needed and of course many will say China and India won’t do it, wrong. In some way’s easer to get China and India to start that new way of thinking than here in the States. It seems like the last few years many people have lost there marbles and the first instinct is instinct not reason. Ok first try at this and I am going to see if I can write this refine it down to it’s simplest form. It’s very hard to do that sometimes.

  8. Rev. José M. Tirado said on January 29th, 2009 at 9:03am #

    Don, if I understand you right, the crux of what you are saying is that the thinking there in the US is twisted or just plain backward among the politicians and I´d agree. But why should that stop you? Again, people when they want to go to parties make tons of phone calls and invite lots of friends, when they get together for a Super Bowl party stats are recorded, friends invited, and a huge amount of energy is spent to set up, engage in the festivities and then clean up afterwards. But when you don´t have health insurance no one calls friends to organize a sit in at their Representative´s office demanding he/she support the Conyers Single Payer Act. Why not? When most USAmericans spend most of their waking lives at work with people who have similar problems they don´t get together and demand a union to get better wages, working conditions, and beneffits. Why not? The obstacles in India and China are greater yet (at least in India) they regularly stand together against their employers for a better life for all. Why? Are they that different?

  9. JBPM said on January 29th, 2009 at 9:14am #


    Your talk about unions tends to fall on deaf ears here in the US because we’ve been brainwashed as a mass culture to see unions as corrupt and self-interested, which occasionally they can be (especially the upper echelons of union management). Oddly, the corruption and self-interest of corporate scum never get the same treatment, and are in fact usually lauded and valorized.

    That said, you are exactly right — USAmericans need to unionize and pronto— and what clinches that for me was an article I saw in today’s BoingBoing (http://www.boingboing.net/2009/01/28/audio-us-heads-of-in.html). The same cocksuckers we bailed out now want to use that (involuntary) tax-payer largesse to campaign against those same tax-payers who just lined their pockets. The “heads” of these companies need to be just that — heads, on pikes no less — whilst their carcasses feed the crows or get transformed into biofuel.

    So yeah, we need to unionize, and we all need to tell our legislators to support the Employee Free Choice Act.

  10. Rev. José M. Tirado said on January 29th, 2009 at 10:16am #

    I think you are right, but only to a degree. The bigger problem in the States, I believe, is the lack of solidarity with neighbor, a sense of community and a “we´re all in this together”-ness that is a much bigger problem. In most countries I have been to (and across peoples I have dealt with) the most natural allies are the people you work with since it is widely understood that your livelihood is where you spend alot of your time and that “we” as workers can get more if we fight for it. In the US there is a much greater “get it for me” attitude, a natural disdain for co-workers and a sense that “I should stick it to them before they stick it to me” selfishness. This attitude I regard as a greater obstacle and while I think it is related to what you say, represents a more nefarious division of worker against worker that the owners of the country (who have no such compelling reasons to not ally with one another and do so with speed and solidarity that should be the envy of unions everywhere) expolit to their advantage. When workers see each other as the natural allies in a greater struggle for power and ownership of resources (and their wise r use for the benefit of all, rather than a few) then things will change.

  11. lichen said on January 29th, 2009 at 8:23pm #

    How preachy and irrelevant this article is. Iceland is not Greece. In Greece, the right wing government allowed citizens to be denied economic rights, to die and starve in the streets; they bred violence, and their police murdered a 15 year old boy. I highly applaud the movement in Athens, I highly applaud their burning. It has nothing to do with morality. Taking things out of context and making up a sermon about it is ridiculous.

  12. Rev. José M. Tirado said on January 30th, 2009 at 2:14am #

    “Highly applaud the burning”?
    Middle class people, ostensible allies of working class activists who have worked tirelessly to change things in Greece are pissed off at having their shops burned, their stores smashed, their streets rendered unsafe. Ever been to Greece? I have. Ever talked with Greek activists? I have. Ever read ekathemerini or other Greek journals/magazines? I do, regularly.
    It is best to become familiar with the subject one tries to talk about before making hollow statements like you made. Get out from behind your computer and sometime. The differences between Greece and Iceland are and have always been noted by me in my articles but you choose to ignore that. What remains is a case study in activism and in one case it worked and in the other it is beginning to sour the public and thus possibly fail. What is irrelevant is the fatuous and facile way you (mis)interpret events.

  13. lichen said on January 30th, 2009 at 2:02pm #

    No, actually, it did work in Greece; the right wing government there and all across Europe was threatened and forced to hold back their continued attacks on the working classes. Your religous morality is sickening, insipid, futile, and clueless. I bet you are one of those who would work with the police to have those ‘bad protesters’ arrested and further defend the government as it continues to slaughter and impoverish the masses. I will always support the revolt in Greece; the world is determinist, it is not made up of a petty right wing christian ‘free will’ and there is no place for petty moralizing.

  14. JBPM said on January 30th, 2009 at 2:33pm #


    Are you a knee-jerk antireligious fundamentalist? Your choice of words (e.g, preachy, morality, sermon, “christian ‘free will’) makes your real beef against Jose’s article pretty clear. It might make no difference to you (probably not) but Jose is not a Christian minister. He isn’t even a Christian. His “reverend” status refers to the fact that he is an ordained Shin Buddhist priest, although in my decades-long friendship with him, I’d say he’s as much agnostic as he is anything.

    Having clarified THAT, I can also tell you from experience that Rev. Tirado’s piece is not intended to condemn Greek protestors and to valorize the Icelanders. I think that Rev. Tirado is wise and compassionate enough not to tell victims of oppression and repression that violence is off the table, or to moralize against those who resort to violence. Rather, his point is that in some cases determination and cooperation across religious, class, ethnic, etc. lines can have effects that are as powerful, if not moreso, than throwing Molotav cocktails at the local Starbucks (however satifsying and justified that might be).
    Interesting that someone whose screen name refers to a symbiotic metaorganism would be so quick to condemn advocacy of nonviolent mutualism and cooperation.

  15. Rev. José M. Tirado said on January 30th, 2009 at 2:46pm #

    “It” worked in Greece? What “it” are you referring to? Obviously you have not been there (I have) and know no Greek socialists or activists (I do.)
    “Impoverish the masses”…slaughter”? Obviously you know nothing about Greece and teh working class there where the Albanians and Nigerians represent the bottom of the barrel in terms of working classes and most Greeks, while despising their government (they are Greeks after all) don´t appreciate their streets and shops burned for any reason. Get to know some Greeks who live in Thessaloniki (I do) or Athens (I do) and ask them if they are happy their father´s or uncle´s stores were torched and whether that brings them together with the so-called “anarchists” who do most of the torching.
    “Revolt”? Reading a few books or taking a college course in Marx means nothing to me. I have led union struggese and won and come from a working class background. I dismiss lectures from kids who, wet behind the ears, think they know something about their idealized visions while never toiling or struggling with others. Are you organizing your workplace? Are you in a union? Do you work? Do you have any idea what it means to earn a living without the possibility of advancement or spending inordinate amounts of your time behind a computer screen bitching about the world from afar and expressing “solidarity” while probably not knowing who your neighbors are or understand the political system in your neighborhood?
    As for police, they are merely functionaries of “my enemy” as an old communist friend taught me and to get distracted thinking otherwise is to piss on gnats in mud. The bigger system which ensnares (enclaves?) us all is not affected in the least by the burning of working class neighborhoods by college kids. It enjoys such spectacles because it further divides potential adversaries.
    But you wouldn´t know much about any of that it appears, what with your Thesaurus nearby and your insular view of “struggle” and “revolt”.
    And by the way, check out the moralizing of Marx and Kropotkin, Godwin, Stirner and others who spent some time with real people and labored to struggle with them for the better good. Lastly, not being a Christian I suspect you wouldn´t understand my own values and morals which have always been rooted in reality and not in some theory. Getting a job would help. Getting out of teh US for a while would be even better. But save your sad “analyses” for the kids you hang with, there´s a big world out there and real struggles to be waged.
    Over and out.

  16. Tree said on January 30th, 2009 at 2:50pm #

    Wow. Go Rev.