Iceland is often perceived as a unique example of how to deal successfully with a financial crisis. What actually did happen, that Icelanders in 2008 acted in a different way?
In fact we did a few things right and on the wave of anger we did them quickly. It’s important, because like with any crisis, the real change is going to happen only if the reforms are introduced just after the crisis. Otherwise the reforms won’t be lasting.
But still I have to debunk some myths on Icelanders and their response to the crisis.
Let’s start then. You established Special Investigation Commission and punished about 200 people, politicians and executives, responsible for the crisis.
Yes, we did punish some of those people. We got the great expert Eva Joly to work with us in order to give us some advice on how to catch white collar criminals.
But those who own the banks are still free and for example one of them is again in the top 100 of the most rich people in the world. The people who did get convicted had quite a comfortable stay in prison. It was sort of a luxury prison, with red wine and fine food. One of them had even a helicopter to get to town.
Later the parliament decided to change the incarceration law. In effect, after a certain amount of time the prisoners got the possibility to have a special bracelet and not to have to serve a full time being imprisoned. Those of us who have been working on prison reform within the parliament didn’t realize that law was specifically crafted for the white collar criminals.
You rejected two times in referendum the acts of your parliament which obliged Icelandic people to pay the debt of nationalized private banks to the foreign countries (UK and The Netherlands).
This is one of the things I worked very hard on; That is, to encourage the Icelandic people to sign a petition directed to the president in order to call for a national referendum. Our constitutions states that Icelandic president can veto a bill if there is an obvious gap between the will of the nation and the majority of the parliament. I also felt it was important to get support from abroad and our side of the story. The debt burden would have meant we would still have not recovered from the crisis.
These were indeed intense times, I would sleep at my office in the parliament to make sure that deal would not be accepted. Iceland was under the tremendous pressure from the European Union, from the United Kingdom, from the Netherlands. We got help from some unexpected places and people, for example, from Chelsea Elizabeth Manning – the famous whistleblower, because it was obvious that we were being bullied those countries used to being colonizers of smaller nations.
If the Icelandic nation had taken on this debt which was the responsibility of the private sector, we would have been paying astronomical interest unilaterally decided by the British and Dutch governments. The debt was beyond comprehension and of course those that owned the banks not the nation should be held accountable, the debt with interest was 3,8 bln euro, almost 12 000 euro per Icelander.
That national referendum was incredibly empowering because if we had lost it in a court, we would have collectively shared the responsibility. We won and we collectively shared the win.
What about the post-crisis plan to change the Icelandic constitution?
That is another myth I want to debunk. Iceland used to be a colony of Denmark. We got independence while the Danes were occupied by the Germans. Once we got independence, we got as well a special “gift” from Denmark – their constitution. We adopted it as ours and at that time the lawmakers explained that it was supposed to be a temporary constitution. But over 70 years have passed and nothing has changed. That’s why during the crisis there were a lot of demands to write our own constitution, that would be better suited to Icelanders.
We wanted the new constitution to be created in a really inclusive way. We had an assembly with one thousand randomly selected people to participate in discussion on our values: who are we and how do we want it to be reflect in our highest law. We went through the entire process in the parliament and finally, we had a referendum on six questions which referred to the new constitution. Majority of Icelanders said “yes” to all questions, but the parliament in the final days of its term decided to dishonour the will of the people.
What kind of changes did you want to introduce?
That was a constitution which was written in a ordinary language, that everyone can understand. It was not a juridical language. Moreover, the draft had very important provisions in it. For example, declaring natural resources the national property which can’t be privatized, freedom of information as a constitutional right and guaranteeing net neutrality which would become a constitutional right. It was really modern and very inclusive for everyone that lives in Iceland. It also made it so that the nation could call for a national referendum without having to ask the president and 15% of us, could introduce a bill or a resolution that the parliament was obligated to process.
It was really beautiful, but we will never get it. It’s finished. People in power don’t want it, because it would change the game. It would mean a profound opportunity for real changes and level Iceland up into a real functional and modern democracy.
Although you debunked some myths on Icelanders and their response to the crisis, still one can say that something has changed since then. At least your economy is doing very well now.
We had nothing to do with it. The financial wonder of Iceland is based upon the fact that we are a very lucky nation. Just think about Iceland – only 334.000 people sitting on all these recourses. If you realize how few we are, we are by far the richest nation on this planet. But somehow still we have rampant poverty, immigrant workers who are abused. There is a lot of Polish people among them and we are abusing them. That makes me really angry.
Another reason why we did good financially was the fact that we had our own currency and we could lock in the currency rate. Actually, now our currency is stronger than it was before the crisis. That is very problematic, because it means that everything we import is cheaper and export is more expensive.
What saved us as well was the volcanic eruption, after which we had an insane increase in tourism. In effect now the tourism is the biggest industry in Iceland.
Although the economy is doing well, we messed up the chance for real changes. Greed is just rampant, black economy is gigantic – like in Greece or even worse. I am afraid that now we are back into 2007 mentality. If Icelanders don’t act together, soon we will have the same problems with a slightly different color. If you don't change the fundamentals, it is just like putting a race car driver behind the wheel of a broken car, it won't make it drive any better.
The Icelandic parliament unanimously adopted a resolution which is known as Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI). How did you managed to do that?
To be honest, I am not totally sure what happened. But I learned from the Shock Doctrine book by Naomi Klein that during times of crisis those in power speed up laws that take away rights from the general public, the Patriot Act is a good example of that. So I thought one could reverse the effect and use the times of crisis to get laws that increase rights through with out much effort. And I think that helped a lot. It is also very hard for people in power to say no to more transparency, better press freedoms, and protection of sources and whistleblowers during times of semi revolt. Everyone was keen on at least showing off that they cared about these things.
IMMI was though much more then just a law or a policy, it was a brand new way of approaching policy work. We had people from all over the world scout for the best laws in regard to freedom of expression, speech, information and privacy in the digital age. Laws that had proved to work not just on paper but in courts. The resolution basically tasked the Icelandic government to create dynamic laws that should always aim to be the best in all the categories in order to make Iceland into a digital safe haven for all the forbidden knowledge in the world that those in power be in politicians, dictators or corporations want to be removed from the public domain.
The real miracle about IMMI is that the work is still ongoing and the Prime Minister of Iceland has created a steering group to prepare all the laws for her to put forward in the parliament to be adopted within a year. Various groups had been working on the IMMI laws for almost 10 years, but they got stuck in the ministries. Soon I will be able to close this chapter and start to work on something else.
In 2009 you got elected to the parliament representing Citizens’ Movement. You said you got there “accidentally”.
Yes, because I was never interested in being in the parliament or to be a politician. We were formally created as a political party 8 weeks prior to the elections. We had no money, we didn’t know anything about the political game. We didn't want any former politicians, we wanted to be a platform for ordinary citizens to participate in co-creating their realities. To be honest, I didn't really think we would be elected, but all of a sudden I woke up to the reality that I was a public person and that I had a seat in parliament during some of the craziest years in our democracy.
So entering the parliament wasn’t so difficult after all.
It’s not hard to get in. It is all about timings. I’ve co-created two political parties out of nothing and both got into the parliament. The real miracle was to get a Pirate Party into parliament in 2013.
What was the main policy platform of the Pirate Party back then?
The policy platform we had was basically IMMI, constitutional change, copyright reform and the decriminalization of drugs. And the fact we got in was incredible. We became a very big very quickly, too quickly in retrospect. After the elections in 2016 we were the second biggest party in Iceland, with 14,5 percent of support and 10 seats in the parliament.
You could have been the prime minister and you could change the system but you didn’t want to be one. Why?
There is a big misunderstanding all over the world about real power, I could not have changed the system unless I had an overwhelming majority and the office I was to hold would have been a government with 5 parties. It would have been mostly about taking out fires and management. I wanted to show where the power in society should be, I wanted to move that idea of power to the parliament and suggested I would be the speaker of the house instead of PM. Most people think that the parliament is the lawmaker, the power house, the reality is that it is the government that has all the power, and no one elected the government.
I also think that people’s relationship with power is very problematic. I am a Buddhist by nature and therefore I do not classify people by status. I class people by how they interact with one another. I did not like the fact that people were trying to impose authority on me. Although, I am very strong and very affirmative – if I believe in something, I will fight for it.
What actually happened that you decided to create the Pirate Party?
It was primary to make sure that IMMI would be finalized but also to make sure we would have people within the oversight and legislative body who understand technology and human rights.
I realized that there would be no geeks inside parliament if I wouldn't run again and we were dissolving the Civic Movement, because it was only meant to be a hit and run party to try to use the crisis to push for fundamental change in our system. I felt it was reckless to leave the parliament void of representatives who understand technology.
I used to work as a web developer, or as a weaver as we called it back in 1995. I was optimistic when the Internet became a visual space. I really believed that it would change our lives in the offline world for the better. I am a writer with many hats and the owner of all kinds of copyrights. I liked the spirit online, you could share your work in what became later known as CC or CL. It opened so many doors for me to be able to collaborate with people from all over the world.
I started to notice that the copyright industry (not the people who own copyrights, but those who have ownership rights, like Sony and other big stakeholders) are abusing its position. Usually if you are not a superstar, you get almost no money for your creative work. Its the big stakeholders that have shaped this market for their own gain. This is why there are so many creative people within the Pirate Party movement all over the world.
The copyright stakeholders should be held accountable for being the main catalysts for destroying our privacy. They are the ones who somehow managed to get permission to put all the crazy stuff in our computers known as DRM to invade our privacy in order to see if we had shared a song or a movie.
It's important to note that no one is torrenting films or songs anymore, it was like many of us said back in the day, a service problem. It was almost impossible to buy the products legally. Who doesn't remember the silly lock on areas on DVD players. But the damage is done and can't be reversed.
The copyright industry helped destroy fundamental rights, because privacy is a fundamental human right. They were criminalizing kids and teenagers who exchange their files. When I was growing up, we made mixed tapes and gave them to other people. Nobody would think about arresting somebody for that. And that’s exactly what the copyright industry is doing today. I raised my kids up telling them that sharing is a virtue. I think it is insane to criminalize sharing.
But finally, you quit The Pirate Party. You said that you had been a sort of “Cassandra” there.
First of all, the Pirate Party was never supposed to be a party. It was a movement. We called ourselves in Icelandic “Piratar” and it was a statement. We were people who wanted a real fundamental change. But when we grew bigger, it became too strong of a focus to make us more governable and domesticated within the system.
Maybe it’s inevitable to some extent.
I wanted to create a movement that would inspire the general public to be a part of social change. That didn’t happen with Pirate Party. They have become the party of technocrats.
They are still really amazing people inside the party, they are trying to move it forward, but a lot of the founders are gone. Because we fell that certain vision we were devoted to, I mean “Take the power from the powerful and give it to the powerless”, wasn’t there anymore.
I am not saying that they are doing things badly, I am just saying we are not on the same path. And instead of trying to force something that people felt that is not a priority, I prefer to concentrate on other things that I feel more motivated to push forward.
Which kind of systemic changes would you like to introduce in order to make the system more adequate currently?
There is a lot of experimentation and discussion. For example, in our constitution we have representatives only, not parties. So the first thing would be to allow people to vote for individuals, not for the parties. There is a middle way with this, that could be done by allowing people to vote for individuals across party lines.
The ultimate goal would be to have parliaments with randomly selected individuals with enough resources in order to execute proper oversight and policy making. We could connect those individuals with the voters through open source direct democracy platforms.
Today’s parliaments do not have any real functions, not even real law making functions. It’s ridiculous when people call the parliamentarians the law makers. They don’t make the laws at all. Officials usually in the ministries make the laws.
Another interesting idea comes from the Finish parliament, where there is the “Committee for the Future”. It’s a permanent parliamentary committee. It’s like a cross-party think-tank, where people discuss the future development, technology, etc. The members of this committee do not seal themselves in the office, they reach out to society in innovative ways, like citizen hearings or crowd-sourcing. It’s really cool. I think that all parliaments should have that.
In parliaments of the future we could have randomly selected people, where we could have the consensus dimension instead of a majority and minority. Of course this is something you have to develop, you can’t have it overnight.
From the Polish perspective, the consensus based policy you are proposing is hard to imagine. Not only because of different political culture, but also because of extremely deep political divisions we are dealing with now.
First of all – turn off Facebook. Just try it. Facebook is constructed to create polarization. When you see something you totally strongly disagree with on FB, you have to reply! And the others who see your post want to do the same, and so on. It creates polarization. But if you get these people side by side in a room, looking into their eyes, you solve the problem. You just work like a marriage consultant.
But also remember, no one could have believed it possible to change anything in Iceland. Don't give up before you start. Be ready with new methods when the time is right to impose them and there is a general will for progressiveness. You have a culture of strong unions. Maybe they need to upgrade and understand what is coming in relation to automation and algorithms.
Using your metaphor of marriage consultant, I am afraid that Polish people have already divorced.
Poland is a country of so many brilliant people and I just can’t believe that they allowed themselves to be put into these positions. Are you trying to make a civil war? Is that what people really want? No, I can’t believe that
We even call it “Polish-Polish war”.
So maybe you are closer to former Yugoslavia than you can imagine. Go to Sarajevo, think about the snipers that were shooting the people, who were trying to get food. Do you want that here? Seriously? If you don’t want it, you have to start building bridges and that is not contra anything.
If young people do not get engaged, educated people do not get engaged and come up with other solutions, you will have a country run by insane senior citizens, that thrive on power. And I said that with ultimate respect for the sane senior citizens.
The members of older generations are often so completely stuck in their ways. You cannot get them to change their perspective nor can they understand the struggles of younger generations. Of course this is a massive generalization and you can have really amazing thought leaders of all ages.
There are however lots of people who want to build bridges and they usually belong to a younger generation of community leadership. I want to stress though that mentorship is something that needs to be honed and nurtured in all fields.
Maybe strong tensions are the worldwide trend. Political divisions seem to erupt everywhere.
This is the narrative of a lot of people, for example in the USA. I do not agree. It’s an exaggeration. These people are heightening fear in order to hide their incompetence to be able to govern and their corruption. It is also a great way to get to power if you want to dictate people through fear.
But these divisions aren’t ancient. This is just stoking primitive dimension in our brains on both sides. It’s not in our nature to be divided. Humans are much more about collaboration. And those that thrive are the ones who collaborate. So don’t let them tell you under any circumstances that this division is normal.
How to get out of this divided world?
Find your poets. Find your thinkers and visionaries and let them speak to the people. You have the type of people, that are very energetic, strong, inspirational.
Rebuild the unions. That’s where the energy is now. All the rights we have now, like working hours, minimum wages, sick leave – they didn’t come from the political parties. None of them. They came from the unions. And what are the unions – they are the collective force of people working together. So you have to understand that the power is in the many and you need visionaries.
Do you know what the populists have that the lefts or progressives don’t have? They have a vision. It’s a scary future. That is making people vote for them. And they are strong. They are going to protect them. It’s a complete lie, but that’s what they all proclaim.
So you have to find people who will start talking about vision. There are plenty people like that here. Just find them or be one of them.
BIO: Birgitta Jónsdóttir - Poetician and a former parliamentarian for the Civic Movement & Pirate Party in the Icelandic Parliament & chairman for IMMI (International Modern Media Institute). She was selected as one of the International Politician of the Year in 2016 by Der Spiegel. Served as a member of Nato Parliamentary Assembly and the IPU. Birgitta was a WikiLeaks volunteer and spokes person in 2010. She played a crucial role in WikiLeaks release of the Collateral Murder.