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I Saw Iceland Melt

February 03, 2009

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I Saw Iceland Melt

Coming to an ostensibly stable and prosperous nation-state near you

The annoying thing about tear gas is that it doesn”€™t hit you all at once. They had used a smoke grenade before that and so you assumed it was just another one. You cough slightly at first, so slightly you don”€™t think about it. Then you notice everyone else is doing the same thing. Then you curse, then it gets much worse, and then you run like hell. 

Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik has been hit by days of nonstop demonstrations, which bordered on riots in the evenings. The Icelandic krona has collapsed in value, banks have been nationalized, and the center-right Independence Party, which led the governing coalition, had stubbornly clung to power until recently. As of this writing, the new prime minister is a left-wing lesbian who is being hailed as the first openly gay head of state in the world. 

This is the story from the streets of the “€œsaucepan revolution”€ that forced the government from power.  Hundreds of Icelanders occupied the square in front of the Althing (the parliament) banging drums, pots, street signs and whatever else they could grasp.  Since more people speak English in Iceland than in Bush/Obama’s Washington, I didn”€™t pick up any Icelandic except for “€œVanhæf ríkisstjórn“€”€””€œincompetent government,”€ the tribal chant that echoed throughout the city for days.

I had come to Iceland to escape the crowds and kitsch of Obama’s inauguration, but instead glimpsed what could be the future of the United States”€”when “€œHope”€ and “€œChange”€ get a hard punch in the stomach from economic reality, and Austrian economics. 

This is what we have in store for us. 

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On January 17, as every Saturday for about fourteen weeks prior, crowds of thousands gathered in front of the Althing to denounce the government. When organizers say that something is spontaneous or not masterminded by a political party, they are usually lying.  That said, in this case, it is less of a lie than one would expect, as the people showing up have lost jobs, savings and faith in the future of a country that until recently could boast the highest standard of living in the world. The speakers included academics and unemployed workers, not representatives of a particular party or movement. Only two demands united the crowd”€”the resignation of the leading ministers in the government and immediately hosting new elections. 

Beyond the fury at the establishment, there was no unity in the crowd. There are people waving EU flags, and people waving anti-EU flags. There were a few Soviet flags, and just as predictably, Che Guevara made an appearance on a T shirt.  Fresh from a Ron Paul rally, V was there. And of course, some guy handing me pamphlets about how this was all Israel’s fault for attacking Gaza. Like a Ron Paul demonstration, it was a collection of people who are all against the status quo but have nothing else in common. As a drunk girl in Reykjavik bar told me, “€œit is precisely because no one knows what to do that we are all so angry.”€ And a “€œthrow the bastards”€ out platform, in this case, has a certain amount of righteousness behind them.  Until recently, no one had been held accountable for the wholesale collapse of the economy. The movement was not about reform so much as justice”€”in a contemporary Viking sort of way. 

A demonstration is usually an implied threat, but Saturday’s demonstration looked nothing like one.  Even though there was the usual black bloc and Red flags, the crowd mostly milled around, had their say, and dissipated quickly.  It was a controlled opposition, with even the Communists mostly telling me how they wanted to “€œopen up a discussion”€ and create more social reforms.  The talk of “€œrevolution”€ was laughable in a small, mostly homogenous nation that doesn”€™t have an ethnically or socially distinct proletariat to be rallied to overthrow the regime. Socialism would be implemented by popular consent. Even the Reds, perhaps preparing for the Obama era, eagerly told me that there was nothing in the United States Constitution that prohibited Communism. 

Some of the organizers of the rally were admitted Communists, but most came from various apolitical or more moderate backgrounds. A small contingent of the populist right Liberal Party appeared, but they did not have much of a following. Polls show that the party has fringe appeal, and is not poised to grow as a result of the crisis. One could possibly expect a right-wing backlash in response to the crisis. After all, with the sagas, the ethnic homogeneity, and the quiet nationalism of a country that defines itself by a common history and not an abstract ideology, one could at least expect an “€œIcelandic First”€ movement to grow. However, the center-right in Iceland, as the Communists in China, defined the core of their legitimacy as ensuring economic growth. Once this was lost, they have nothing else to offer. The far right, or what passes for it, can offer some anxiety over blond haired Polish immigrants, not enough to build a populist alternative to safeguard Icelandic workers. The land of Vikings, especially in the city of Reykjavik, is more subject to the global mass culture of MTV than it is to the Prose Eddas. The “€œalternative”€ English language newspaper is just the “€œyoung militant”€ press outlet of the establishment with the same boring arguments everyone else makes”€”Iceland’s own Rolling Stone. Every single person I spoke to, when they found out I was an America, expressed hope that Obama would somehow resolve the situation in the world economy. The Left stands not just to benefit, but to gain the entire benefit from the crisis.

The Left also will benefit because in any crisis situation, they have a revolutionary gestalt lacking on the right. On the following Tuesday, crowds gathered in the Austurvollur Square in front of the Althing. They surged to get into the building, and the police beat them back, arresting 15. Why 15? The police could not control the situation if they had arrested more”€”they didn”€™t have the numbers. Only a few hours later, several of these same fifteen had rejoined the crowd, hammering on pans and joining in the chant.  The crowd was much more ideologically unified than at the rally. This was a march of the Left.  Red flags, black flags, and even East German flags made an appearance. A placard with the picture of a giant pig wearing an Independence Party pin translated to the retro-Soviet label “€œEnemy of the People.”€

At any American protest, the fist of the state is as apparent as it is on midnight of Fat Tuesday. The police, in militaristic garb, herd you into an approved zone and they will arrest you if you wander in the wrong place or make an aggressive action. In Iceland, the crowds kicked and hit the shields of the cops with impunity. One protester simply strolled up to a police officer, shoved a camera in his face, pushed past his shield to do so, and snapped a picture. The police officer lazily brushed him aside. I couldn”€™t help but reflect that the protester would have been cracked across the skull with a billy club in the Land of the Free. 

Seeing that the police had essentially ceded the ground to the mob, the crowd grew more aggressive. An impressive bonfire was created by the front door of the Althing, as pallets, branches, tires, and what seemed like every bench in central Reykjavik was cast into the flames. At a certain point in the evening, the protest becomes less about the government and more about the joy of smashing things and insulting cops with impunity. Occasionally, fireworks would be launched into the error to the jubilation of the crowd and the confusion of tourists staying in the nearby Hotel Borg. Others would be detonated at ground level and sound like bombs going off, the louder booms bringing roars of approval from the protestors. Of course, once you have destroyed all of the park benches and are out of fireworks, the next logical step is rip down the Christmas tree in the square. This is surprisingly difficult to do, and it took a determined crowd the better part of 15 minutes before the War on Christmas was brought to a successful conclusion. The police stood by helplessly as the would-be revolutionaries carried the tree in triumph and cast it to the flames, the red flag fluttering triumphantly over the entire sad affair.

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Letting the crowd have a bonfire was a Macaca-level strategic error on the part of the police. A cold night of chanting slogans at a now empty building was turned into a festive atmosphere.  Somehow, from some source, various people kept appearing with huge pieces of lumber to throw on the fire.  Various black bloc types danced around the fire to the primitive beats in a savage manner.  It somewhat reminded me of the dance scene in Matrix: Reloaded.  The frat boy in me gulped down my Viking beer and rejoiced in the pointless destruction, praying to Odin for the protests to escalate.  The reactionary in me reacted they way I did when I saw Reloaded“€”if this is humanity, I”€™m siding with the machines! Like a dumb College Republican, I kept waiting for the police to beat down these hippies waving East German flags. But the order never came. 

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An American black bloc or even a semi competent SDS chapter could have burned the Althing down on a lark.  The police were completely overwhelmed and outnumbered, and it was quite clear they had no experience in dealing with this kind of civil unrest.  The last riot in Iceland that necessitated tear gas was in 1949 when a melee broke out between conservatives and Communists protesting NATO. There were no Independence Party paramilitaries defending the Althing this time, and you would be hard pressed to find anyone who admitted to being associated with the center-right. With public anger at the level it was, the police had to make the strategic choice not to antagonize the crowd. If V was at the Tuesday night protests as well, he was happy, as the government was very afraid of its people. The protests continued until about four in the morning.

By Wednesday morning, the Althing was immaculate, the paint bombs and food strains of the prior evening washed away. Even in the midst of a crippling financial collapse, Iceland is an efficient country. The repairs were pointless however, as the protests escalated.  Waking to the footage of the Christmas tree burning the night before, the emboldened protesters confronted then Prime Minister Geir Haarde.  He was forced to make an ignominious retreat from his own people as eggs smashed against his windshield. We then marched to the Government House, where the Prime Minister has his offices. An unfortunate worker or police officer”€”I don”€™t know which”€”poked his head out the window and quickly drew the curtains as he was greeted by a barrage of eggs. One protester scored a direct hit with a container of food that broke the top window.  Snowballs, eggs, and paint bombs bombarded the house as the police formed an uncertain defensive line in front of the front door and accepted their culinary bombardment. Their clothes were still stained white from the paint bombs the day before. Tourists fresh from the information center gawked at chanting mob as seemingly every car that passed honked in support. 

When darkness fell, we found the crowds had come back to the Althing. The police tried to prevent the error of the night before by using a fire extinguisher. Unfortunately for them, the undaunted protesters simply started a new fire, and restarted the old one when the police retreated. Now, we had two fires. The crowd was much more aggressive then the night before, but oddly self regulating.  When a protester sprayed gasoline on one of the bonfires, a stream shot onto the wall of the Althing, setting it aflame. The police did not react and the protesters simply walked up to the wall, put the fire out, and continued chanting.  While a few kids chanted “€œBurn motherfucker burn”€ (in English), most people were content to simply bang their pans and chant.  

Being part of a mob, even when you don”€™t speak the primary language or support the cause, is undeniably fun. We owned the streets.  At some point, without any particular signal, the crowd left the Althing and marched down the main road filled with bars and shops. We marched to the national theater, where a meeting of the Social Democratic Alliance was taking place.  The center-left party was the other part of the governing coalition with the Independence Party and the crowd was pressuring them to sever the coalition and destroy the government. While some of the crowd pushed into the building, most stood outside, gathered around a flaming trash can with various objects thrown on top.

Next door to the theater, three flag poles stood. In short succession, the flag of the Soviet Union and two black flags of anarchy were raised. The inherent contradiction bothers no one; the crowd cheered. And the cheers grew when news came that the Reykjavik branch of the Alliance Party had voted to dissolve the coalition.  With the mission accomplished, the crowd trooped back to the Althing. 

While most did the usual chanting and dancing, a large section of the crowd surged towards the side entrance of the Althing and attempted to break in. After being repulsed, the some in the crowd took up cobblestones and began throwing them at the police. A do-gooder stood up and angrily told the crowd to stop and then righteously instructed them to sit in front of the police. If they had possessed flowers, I”€™m sure they would have started handing them to the police. Here, however, the police foolishly decided to escalate. A squad clad in gas masks moved into the center of the square and were promptly greeted by fireworks thrown at their feet.  In response, out came the smoke grenades, and then out came the gas, landing a few feet from me. As I had originally thought it was a smoke grenade, I had the dubious honor of being the first American, if not the first person period, to be tear gassed in Iceland in sixty years.

It is impossible for any government in these conditions to avoid looking like fascists. Protests are Fourth Generation Warfare in miniature”€”the moral advantage is always to the unarmed protesters, even if they are throwing cobblestones and breaking windows. Under the circumstances, the gas was pointless and didn”€™t stop anything anyway, as the crowd simply moved to the government house. A mob throwing rocks at the police for the fun of it turns into peaceful protesters ruthlessly driven off by the armed fist of the state using weapons that have not been seen in Iceland for more than half a century. While the police blocked off the main square, yet another bonfire was put in front of the government house, a window was smashed, and the chants continued in a new location. 

Six policemen moved out cautiously to set up a perimeter in front of the house. The crowd, furious at the gassing, avenged itself by throwing huge cobblestones. One enormous chunk smashed a policeman in the leg.  Angry and clearly hurt, he broke formation and chased the perpetuator but was turned back by a crowd that taunted him and struck him with fists and makeshift clubs. Returning to his comrades, who were obviously terrified, I thought for the first time we might actually see real violence. And then, predictably, more do-gooders showed up with peace signs and paeans to nonviolence. The protests were mostly limited to chanting for the rest of the night, with the protesters largely regulating themselves even after being gassed. 

The Icelandic government fell less than a week later, the first to fall to the international financial crisis, and certainly not the last. The government formed was a left-wing Popular Front style government of the center left and the far left.

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Several lessons suggest themselves.

Make no mistake; it is capitalism that will take the blame for this crisis. Crying that we do not have “€œtrue capitalism”€ is as questionable as those coffee house philosophers telling you that the Soviet Union was not “€œtrue communism.”€ Both claims might be correct, but that is irrelevant. America alone has some minor constituency with the Ron Paul revolutionaries and Young Americans for Liberty that can claim to be true believers in a system that has never been implemented. To the average person however, and certainly overseas, the sudden collapse of jobs and savings because of the incomprehensible machinations of shadowy bankers will lead to greater demands for state security, regardless of the actual causes of the crisis.  The battle cry of the Reykjavik riots was not “€œSmash the State,”€ or “€œDown with the Government”€”€”it was “€œIncompetent Government”€ “€“ a demand for a more efficient technocracy.

A second depressing conclusion is that absent a right wing alternative, the only response to every leftist failure will be more leftism. Several libertarians are congratulating themselves on noting that Obamanomics will fail just as the New Deal did. Of course, FDR was still elected four times and is remembered as one of the greatest presidents in American history.  Similarly, while the new Icelandic regime will busy itself in income redistribution and social scheming, the center-right is limited to a defense of a system that is widely seen to be failing.  If the center-left can not fix the crisis, the crowds may come back, confront the “€œfascist”€ police yet again, and help create an even more extreme alternative.  If Iceland’s decline continues, the Left-Greens stand to benefit far more than the Liberal Party or certainly the altogether discredited Independence party. The Left is the establishment and its own alternative.

Third, the crisis will provide the cover for the leftists to carry out their irreversible agenda of social transformation. Both the left-wing parties will push for liberalizing labor laws for immigrants, an ominous sign for a tiny nation of about 300,000. The fall of the Independence Party also removes a major obstacle for the admission of Iceland to the EU, which though not on the table immediately, may look increasingly desirable if the krona remains weak. This will create great pressure on Iceland to accept mass immigration and other restrictions on sovereignty which could easily destroy the country and current a permanent constituency for socialism. Because the country is so small, leftists only need to open the floodgates once to ensure their permanent majority.  An economic crisis, unless the left moves towards outright communism, will pass in time, as will Obama, reality shows, and the Republic itself.  A sweeping demographic change is forever.  As a paleoconservrvative (or maybe postpaleo), I will confirm Ryan McMacken’s charge that I have greater faith in the capacity of this Nordic people to thrive even under socialism than for lasseiz-faire capitalism to create a paradise after the international community decides Iceland is the ideal place to settle tens of thousands of Palestinians. 

The capitalist system around the world is in crisis and in Iceland, there does not seem to be an alternative except the vague leftist Zeitgeist that never seems to lose its appeal.  Nor is there one worldwide. The nationalist Right does not seem likely to triumph in Iceland or in Europe, and in America, it simply doesn”€™t exist. Campaigning on libertarianism in Iceland or anywhere in Europe for that matter seems laughable.  The Left, for all its failures, has a universal creed of emancipation and egalitarianism, and an idealism that can always inspire in times of crisis.  Most worryingly, social democracy does not suffer from its failures but is pushed constantly towards greater extremism and statism.  If this was in the spirit of the streets in Iceland, the spectre will certainly not avoid America.  

Is there a right wing alternative to capitalism?  If not, is there a way to build a movement behind real capitalism as enduring as that behind the fighting spirit of the Left?  These are the questions that need to confronted by those of us on the Right today, if we are to build a fighting faith that resist the End of History represented by social democracy.  Iceland holds a warning, but no answers. 

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