Peasants

I have moved from Iceland to the UK three times in my life. The third, which not so coincidentally took place in 2008, is likely to be the last.

(The two attributed quotes in this post are thanks to Íris Erlingsdóttir’s awesome blog post where she collected them all in Icelandic.)

The first time I moved back to Iceland was in 1984 when my parents returned after finishing their studies abroad. Of course, knowing our luck, we returned at the start of what ended up being one of Iceland’s longest general strikes, lasting from the 4th of October to the 30th.

Iceland was in an economic crisis, what we call ‘kreppa’. What most foreigners don’t realise is that Iceland has been in a bipolar boom-bust cycle ever since we declared independence from the Danish. And before that we were in a poverty spiral of misery, hunger, and sky-high childhood mortality rates.

Usually the crises happened because of our dependence on just a few species of fish for the entire country’s income. When the fish was in our waters, everybody was rich. When it was out of our waters, everybody was poor.

Incidentally, this is why most Icelanders find it hilarious to hear the EU and Norway whine about mackerel having wandered into Icelandic waters. You ignored Icelandic pleas when ‘our’ fish entered your waters and now Icelanders ignore your whining when ‘your’ fish enters our waters.

I’m not about to excuse Iceland’s many misbehaviours when it comes to fishing but a lot of people at home just see this as karma.

Back when I was a kid, my first memory of Iceland was of a kreppa and they have been happening regularly all my life.

This is the real reason why we’ve dealt tolerably well with the current economic crisis and will deal tolerably well with the upcoming crisis (in a couple of years or so). We’re old hands at this and the 2008 collapse didn’t even come close to being the worst kreppa anybody over thirty has experienced.


I’ve been watching this for 50 years. This is a disgusting society, it’s all disgusting. There are no principles, no ideals, nothing. Only opportunism and struggle for power. (Styrmir Gunnarsson, former editor of Morgunblaðið.)


Most Icelanders excuse this boom-bust cycle as simply being the nature of the Icelandic economy—as if it were a corporeal being with its own genome and self-awareness—and dismiss concerns that it’s because the people in charge are incapable of running anything bigger than an off-license.

‘It just is.’

A fatalistic outlook is one of the few characteristics we share with our nordic kin, but that’s where it ends. The fatalism of your average Icelander is that of a Calvinistic peasant who, paradoxically, is also still holding onto some old-style norse beliefs.

Success, or the lack of it, is seen as a sign of God’s (or the Fates’) opinion of you. Hard work and merit will never earn you anything. Only God’s will matters. It’s a belief that has created a society where nepotism, cliques, and tribal alliances dominate and any attempt to set up a meritocracy is quickly subverted.

And, the perennial mantra of Icelandic parents of dead children: ‘Those who God loves die young.’

These two beliefs are what kept the starving Icelandic nation going for centuries while under the Danish yoke. ‘Everything happens according to God’s design. Who am I to argue with God? If I work hard enough, maybe he will forgive me for whatever it is I did.’

Icelanders are, at heart, God-fearing peasants who think the poor deserve their poverty, the rich deserve their money, and that death is brought on by God’s will and not your own idiocy.

It’s no wonder that the majority of Icelanders have always voted right wing.


The Icelandic left lost the 2013 election almost as soon as they won in 2009. The mistakes they made were numerous.

  • The Left-Greens, one of the most rabid anti-EU party there is, agreed to support an application for EU membership in exchange for being a coalition member in the government. This obviously had disastrous consequences, causing anger and defections among their MPs and supporters.
  • They had to implement the IMF’s austerity regime to get a loan. Also disastrous because both parties had run on promises of protecting the welfare, education, and healthcare system. Instead they gutted it.
  • IMF didn’t let them implement any of the aggressive business regulations they had promised or implied. The only regulations implemented were those that impact freelancers and small companies, throttling them and guaranteeing that economic growth would only come from the fishing companies and the banks.
  • They did do more than many governments in addressing Iceland’s burgeoning mortgage crisis but they only addressed the symptoms. It’s as if people don’t realise that the problem is systemic and that debt forgiveness just is hitting the snooze button on a bomb timer.
  • They completely fucked up their attempt to reform the constitution. It simply withered and died because it didn’t get the attention it needed.
  • They completely fucked up their attempt to reform Iceland’s feudalistic fisheries policies. (Quotas are owned, sold, and inherited like land awarded to a baron by a generous monarch.)

This mess, disorganisation, and a series of major betrayals lead to the left splintering like a oak in a wood chipper. The coalition has spent the last few months as a minority government protected by one of the splinter parties, incapable of getting anything done, unable to pass any law of consequence.

Because of Iceland’s 5% rule (a party will only get MPs if it has more than 5% of the vote nationally), only two of these splinter parties got into parliament last Saturday and over 10% of the vote was simply discarded and ignored.

There’s a lesson here and it’s very simple: when your country’s economy is in hell, your government can either obey the IMF’s diktats and be so unpopular that you lose power, or your government can throw the IMF out and risk complete and utter bankruptcy and an uncertain future. Iceland’s leftwing backlash government was screwed either way, from the start.

The second lesson is that the Icelandic left is dominated by idealists who will not take realpolitik as an excuse for betraying the cause. They won’t hesitate to drive a knife into the back of a benefactor turned tyrant, turning into a gaggle of small petty people ganging up with blades in their hands and bloodlust in their hearts, Brutus-on-Caesar-style.


We Icelanders never lose because we never follow through on victories. We are by nature a nation that feels the most at home in a pillory. (Halldór Laxness, Salka Valka – Fuglinn í fjörunni)


That the left wing would lose in last Saturday’s election was predictable to those of us who know Icelanders and Icelandic politics and it only blind-sided those idiots who bought into the Occupy-style propaganda wholesale.

It’s inaccurate to say that Iceland swung massively to the right. This was just a return to norm. Most Icelanders have traditionally voted centre-right.

That said, the election did offer a few surprises. We had two new parties join parliament:

  • Bright Future, a splinter off the Social Democratic Alliances. Their pitch was simple. ‘We’re pro-EU social democrats like those other guys but not sleazy ruthless New Labour-style Thatcherite social democrats like they are.’
  • The Pirate Party. You know who they are and since they only seem to have opinions on a few issues, they aren’t likely to betray any campaign promises. The downside being, of course, that we have no idea what to expect from them on non-digital issues.

Also, the Progressive Party had one of the biggest electoral wins in its history, largely due to their promise of a blanket write-down of all loans which they will pay for in some hand-wavey ‘foreigners will pay it’ sort of way. They were also helped by the fact that they are massively popular in rural Iceland where each vote can count as much as three city votes.

The Independence Party, which is the architect of the latest crash having led a privatisation and deregulation drive in the 90s and early 2000s, had its second worst electoral result in history, only managing to become Iceland’s largest political party by virtue of left-wing fragmentation. Thankfully, it seems that not all Icelanders have forgotten who to blame for the mess we’re still in.

Still, this does highlight just how massively right-wing Iceland is traditionally. This is the Independence Party’s second worst result in their history and they still managed to get the biggest share of of the vote of all parties.

This is Icelanders returning to the masters they know. The Progressive Party and the Independence Party have divided the country and its resources between themselves for most of the last 69 years.

Still, it’s not all bad. It’s inaccurate to say that Iceland swung massively to the right. The centre-right parties got 51% of the vote while the centre-left parties got around 46%. The left is just too fragmented, splintered, and disorganised. Same as it ever was.

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