Mad-as-hell Icelanders won't be taking it any more


Icelandic protests about the economic collapse were mobilised by the young through social networking websites

ICELAND HAS been overwhelmed with civic action movements since its dramatic economic collapse in October of last year. In the beginning, my Icelandic friends went every Saturday afternoon to Austurvöllur Square in central Reykjavík. People just gathered to talk and listen to one another, unsure of what to do but knowing that they had to do something.

Like the Iranian protest of last June, the Icelandic demonstrations were mobilised by a young generation communicating with each other in real time through Facebook, Twitter and other social networking websites.

Members of the government were invited to respond to questions from the general public at civic action meetings. Astoundingly, the ministers accepted these invitations and the meetings were broadcast live on national television.

The politicians sat there and listened to the raw, passionate anger articulated by professors, street cleaners and fishermen. The political, financial and other elites were chastised for destroying the economic fundamentals of a once financially secure country.

Then came the “kitchenware revolution” of last January, where thousands gathered outside the Althing, the national parliament, and banged pots and pans to disrupt the business of parliament. These mass protests, virtually unknown in Iceland’s history, became part of a cathartic uprising that brought down the centre-right government which had been in the ascendancy in Icelandic politics for decades. The heads of the central bank and the financial regulator also resigned.

The subsequent April elections were revolutionary and historic. The centre-left won a parliamentary majority for the first time. Parliament now boasted the highest number of first-time MPs, and the highest number of female MPs in its history.

Johanna Sigurdardottir became the first woman to hold the office of prime minister. “The people are calling for a change of ethics. That is why they have voted for us,” Sigurdardottir said. The new leader of the Conservative party conceded that the worst results in their history were because “we have lost trust”.

All this, in a matter of months, because Iceland’s citizenry decided to assume the mantle of Howard Beale, that fictional character from the 1976 movie Network, who demanded that Americans shout from their windows, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more.”

Since the protests, civil society continues to motivate and direct fundamental change. Grassroots organisations including think tank The Ministry of Ideas have sought to achieve something that the system itself could not.

As part of a bold and ambitious initiative in active democracy, the first National Assembly was held in Reykjavik last month. Some 1,200 citizens randomly selected from the national register and 300 invited guests, including cabinet ministers and MPs, trade unions, representatives from the media and others, were brought together in a modern-style social partnership.

The task of the National Assembly, comprising 0.5 per cent of the population, was to plan a future vision for the country. People were asked what sort of society Iceland should now build in the aftermath of bankruptcy.

Participants were divided into roundtable groups of nine working at 162 tables. The process can be observed by searching for “Iceland National Assembly” on YouTube.

Information technology made it possible to determine the priority order of the various values and themes.

This process is regarded as the first attempt to crowd-source a socio-economic-political manifesto in history. By mining the data in a transparent way, consensus was quickly established among the 1,500 participants about which issues should take precedence, and why.

More information on the fascinating technological process Iceland used and the reasons why can be found from the Harvard Kennedy School:

The National Assembly concluded that integrity was the value considered most important for society. Equal rights, respect and justice, responsibility, freedom, sustainability and democracy were regarded as high priorities, as were family, equality and trust. (

The eight themes discussed by participants included education, economy, equal rights, family, environment, public administration, welfare and sustainability.

Writing in the Guardian, Alda Sigmundsdóttir from the cult blogsite said that the event “was characterised by a strong sense of hope and positive momentum; spirits were high, yet participants were both grounded and focused . . . One thing that characterised this event more than the previous civic action movements was the participants’ determination to focus on the solution rather than the problem.”

The broad consensus which emerged accepted that the National Assembly findings do not equate with radical change but rather a vision for the reconstruction of a society which is the prerequisite for a real beginning. In Ireland, we would call that a second republic.

Justice was an underlying issue. Icelanders demanded that small-time debtors were entitled to the same degree of government assistance as the financial institutions. Icelanders believe that those who caused or contributed to the bankruptcy of their country (the banks, with the tacit support of the politicians) must be held accountable for their actions in order for Icelandic society to credibly move forward. A year on, and a public investigation to establish whether any wrongdoing occurred in the banking system is gathering steam.

The funny thing, though, is that many Icelandic people genetically originate from Ireland. Who would have thought?