Finding a place in the world

Political subjectivities and the imagination of Iceland after the economic crash

in Focaal

Abstract

The economic crash in Iceland created a sense of social and political collapse that extended far beyond the economic realm. Calls for a “New Iceland” were invoked, where the Icelandic political arena would be “cleaned” and reimagined in drastic ways. In this article, I explore how ideas circulating in the wider European region about how Icelanders dealt exceptionally well with the crisis not only failed to reflect the lived effects of the collapse but also echoed long-standing nationalist ideals of Icelanders’ imagined reality of themselves. I show how nation branding in Iceland after 2010 added to the conception that Iceland dealt with the crisis in an exceptional way, and I critically ask why Iceland received such a positive depiction in the international media.

In an obscure coffee shop in Graz, Austria, I start chatting with a woman I have never met before. “Oh, you are from Iceland,” she says and immediately proclaims with a dreamy expression that it must be wonderful there, considering how well Iceland handled the global financial crisis and the breathtaking democratic reforms conducted in the aftermath of the crash. I smile politely, because I don’t want to argue, yet again, that this observation does not fully reflect reality. Iceland’s economic crash in 2008 was widely seen as the first casualty of an economic crisis in the first decade of a new millennium. The international media soon popularized positive news about Iceland’s democratic reforms and crisis management. According to these news sources, new political subjectivities emerged in Iceland, almost like a mythological phoenix from the flames. As phrased by one international online journal, the Icelandic people “refus[ed] to bow to foreign interests,” and thus the “small country stated loud and clear that the people are sovereign” (Stryker 2011). As symbolized by the words of this random woman in an Austrian coffee shop, Iceland had apparently managed the impossible: to stand against the world’s oppressive financial system, one that is governed by the interest of financial elites.

This article critically addresses these conceptions, claiming that while these popularized narratives fail to reflect the lived effects of the collapse, they echo long-standing nationalistic Icelandic ideals of the island’s unique role in the world, dating from the time when Iceland struggled for independence from Denmark. Of no less importance is that these conceptions of Iceland reflect a desire in the Global North for a new political future where the economic crisis in Europe and beyond initiated widespread calls for global justice and demands for new and better futures. These initiatives included the Occupy Wall Street movement, originating in the United States in 2011 and which protested the bailout of the banks and US citizens’ growing economic marginalization (Holland et al. 2007; Jaffe 2016; Juris 2012), as well as movements across Europe that similarly galvanized against corruption, increased economic precariousness, and the strong hold of financial and corporate interests in the economy (Juris 2008). These movements, which emphasized radical changes and called for more direct access to democracy (Razsa and Kurnik 2012), have been seen as providing spaces for the public to dream of a “better future” (Jaffe 2016: 280). While occurring within different national contexts, they sought inspiration across national boundaries (Castañeda 2012; Razsa and Kurnik 2012) while being shaped by transnational social and conventional media (Jaffe 2016: 8). In such an environment of global discontent, the success story of a small island standing up to the financial elites seemed to have particular appeal.

Furthermore, the imagination of Iceland as fighting the world’s financial system tells something about the different processes of being and becoming European, raising the question as to why Iceland—with its own well-documented financial disaster and crony capitalism—became such an important canvas on which to imprint the aspirations of the wider European and American community. As argued elsewhere, a closer look at countries situated on the contextual “margins” of Europe often more clearly teases out processes that are central to European ambitions, such as in classifying those who are “more” and “less” European (Loftsdóttir 2012; see also Dzenovska and De Genova, this issue). This is significant because despite increased economic precariousness (Muehlebach 2013), Europe’s status as the cradle of civilization, equality, and the “modern” continues to be invoked in the world today. Europe’s colonial past and its essential role in creating this modernity are conveniently erased (Bhambra 2011: 2; see also Dzenovska 2013: 397; Purtschert et al. 2016).

The ambiguous position of Iceland within the European imagination is reflected in the country’s historical perception in Europe as being inhabited by uncivilized barbarians (Durrenberger and Pálsson 1989), a frame similar to other populations in the far north (Ridanpää 2010). The country is simultaneously celebrated for preserving and guarding old Nordic culture in its medieval manuscripts. In addition to this ambiguous historical positioning, the particular image of Iceland in Europe and the United States after the crash was aided by nation branding after 2010, when the government of Iceland and commercial parties saw the rebuilding of Icelander international reputation as crucial (Benediktsson et al. 2011). In neoliberal economies, identity has become a commodity, of which the “correct” kind of “otherness” is marketable (Comaroff and Comaroff 2000), meaning that Iceland’s association with the exotic, which had previously been a prime source of anxiety, became a particularly potent resource for nation branding (Loftsdóttir 2015). The Icelandic subject was reconstituted in Iceland by the recycling of persistent ideas regarding Iceland’s uniqueness, which had been historically articulated through overlapping discourses of peculiarity and of Iceland as occupying a leading role in the world. These were reasserted by systematic nation branding and frequent international media stories that emphasized Iceland as simultaneously exotic and as guarding democracy.

This discussion is based on participatory research, media analysis, and interviews with individuals working within the Icelandic financial sector at the time of the economic crash. The participatory research was conducted in formal and informal manners, seeing as the economic crash was a part of my professional and intimate environment as a scholar living in Iceland. The diverse media analysis informing this discussion includes analysis of Icelandic business papers and of media discussion analysis of events relating to the economic crash. Such events include the closing of McDonald’s in 2009, voting on agreements between Iceland and the United Kingdom in the aftermath of the bank collapse, and an analysis of the popular tourist campaign “Inspired by Iceland” to rebuild Iceland after the crash (see also Loftsdóttir 2015). The interviews were conducted with more than 30 men and women working in Icelandic banks and financial institutions.

Boom period and the crash

On 6 October 2008, the acting prime minister of Iceland announced that emergency laws were to be enacted in Iceland since three of the main banks had technically gone bankrupt. According to Moody’s Investors Service (2009), the combined losses of these three banks are estimated at around $52 billion. For context, the Lehman Brothers’ losses, estimated at $120 billion, constitute the highest default in history. The fact that Iceland’s total population consists of 320,000 people, and that the banking system had only been fully privatized three years earlier, reveals the surrealistic nature of the crash. Indeed, foreign analysts had warned against the rapid explosion of the banking sector, with the banking system growing to ten times the size of Iceland’s gross domestic product (GDP), but this criticism was largely ignored in Iceland (Árnason 2014: 50; Halldórsson and Zoega 2010).

The emergency laws permitted the government to refinance and take control of the domestic parts of the banks, allowing the state to guarantee the savings of the public while leaving the international part of the banks to face possible bankruptcy—which was generally the case. The immediate effects of the crash were nevertheless enormous. Apart from the banks’ bankruptcies, a great deal of nonfinancial firms became “technically bankrupt” (Daníelson and Zoega 2009: 16), the Icelandic stock exchange closed down, and unemployment rapidly rose. In addition, many individuals lost their savings overnight, and there were dramatic declines in the purchasing power of the public (Wade 2009: 12). The emergency laws involved strict foreign capital restrictions, while the lack of foreign capital in general generated public discussions about a possible food crisis due to Iceland’s heavy reliance on imports. The Icelandic government frantically tried to negotiate loans with neighboring countries, which were unsuccessful because of its disputes with the British and Dutch governments relating to problems with the Internet bank Icesave.1

In November 2008, Iceland was approved for $2.1 billion in assistance from the International Monetary Fund, becoming the first “developed” country to seek IMF relief since 1976. The loan was strongly disputed, and while averting bankruptcy, Iceland became one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world, a big change since it had been almost debt free before 2008 (Ingimundarson 2010: 62). Constant news of both past and ongoing corruption by key politicians and businesspeople created a sense of social and political collapse that extended beyond the economic realm (Jónsson 2009: 286). The widespread discontent of the general public led to mass protests and riots, which resulted in the government resigning in January 2009 (Bernburg 2014, 2015).

The atmosphere had been strikingly different only a few months prior, characterized by great expectations for the future. When Iceland became a founding European Economic Agreement (EEA) member, Icelandic banks could operate within European Union (EU) countries (Mixa 2015: 296). After 2000, Icelandic banks capitalized on money market funding, acquiring foreign financial institutions in addition to opening up branches abroad (Sigurjónsson and Mixa 2011: 210). The banks’ mission was to expand their balance sheets and become important players in the global economy. Icelandic banks thus entered the world of international banking without any prior experience and within a legal framework that had been built around low-risk traditional commercial banking (Mixa 2015: 296–297). This economic adventure was largely led by a group of men—usually referred to as “business Vikings” during the economic boom—who were seen as adventurous and bold in their international investments. The strong masculinization of the financial sector (Johnson et al. 2013) was exacerbated by the young age of most of those working within it (Mixa 2015: 297). As the reference to Vikings indicates, the image of the business Viking selectively engaged with early twentieth-century nationalistic sentiments, originally arising when Iceland was attempting to gain full independence from Denmark. Icelandic intellectuals claimed that Iceland possessed a unique contribution to world culture, similar to that of ancient Greece, that other Europeans should recognize (Rastrick 2013). The Icelandic people’s characteristics were seen as shaped through the hardship and isolation of the country and its landscapes, making Icelanders almost as a special “breed” of people. This emphasis on the unique culture and people was important in legitimatizing Iceland as a sovereign nation (Loftsdóttir 2009, 2014). The massive influx of foreign capital and resulting strong currency created space for extensive consumerism in Iceland, coupled by increasingly available bank loans (Sigurjonsson and Mixa 2011).

This nationalistic emphasis of the economic expansion facilitated support by the general population (Loftsdóttir and Mixa 2014), despite rampant corruption. Close business and political connections had always been prevalent in Iceland (Vaiman et al. 2011), and during the boom years this precedence concealed ownership of co-operations intended to hide extensive cross-ownership and avoid tax payments. In addition, the political elite were strongly involved in how business was conducted, and thus political nepotism is a characterizing feature of the Icelandic political and economic order (Vaiman et al. 2011: 258; see also Johnson et al. 2013). The banks’ largest shareholders were also their largest debtors, and the banks had invested the shares in themselves (Hreinsson et al. 2010: 4). Furthermore, financial firms supported individual politicians, and some parliament members accrued considerable debts with the banks (Árnason 2014: 50–51).

Democratic reforms after the crash

As the philosopher Jón Ólafsson (2014: 8) stresses, the anger expressed within Icelandic society after the crash was not only because of the loss of financial assets, but also had “moral roots.” Overblown self-confidence, exemplified in such ideas that Iceland could become the world’s financial center, seemed laughable after the crash. Some saw the business Vikings, who had been celebrated only shortly before, as guilty of treason against the country and thought they should be prosecuted as such (Jóhannesson 2009). As argued in the report compiled by the commission appointed by the Icelandic government to investigate the cause of the collapse of the three banks in Iceland, the reason for their collapse was primarily because of their expansion and size, not the global economic crisis per se (Flannery 2009: 171; Hreinsson et al. 2010). The democratic initiatives and public mobilization that followed the crash were extensive and consisted of a series of protests and various democratic reforms that aimed at investigating what had gone wrong and giving the general public a more active voice through more participatory democracy. Widespread mobilization started only a few days after the banks’ collapse, with activists and critics organizing outdoor meetings at the square opposite the Icelandic parliament and criticizing Iceland’s political leadership while demanding democratic reforms (Bernburg 2014; J. Ólafsson 2014: 8). Their protest performance of creating sound with utensils, pots, and pans was first used in South America (Castañeda 2012: 317). It has been estimated that about one-quarter of adults in Reykjavík participated (Bernburg 2015: 246), which ultimately led to a new government being elected in the spring of 2009.

The initiated reforms included the Icelandic parliament’s decision in 2009 to proceed with writing a new constitution. The first step was to convene a national assembly, where one thousand individuals were randomly selected from the national registry (held for one day in October 2010) to gather information about what people wanted to see in the new constitution (Gylfason 2012: 12–13). The second step was to appoint a Constitutional Committee, which produced a detailed 700-page report about the new constitution. The third step was a national election of representatives to the Constitutional Assembly, held in November 2010, which saw 25 seats competed over by 523 candidates (2012: 13). The dispute with the United Kingdom and the Netherlands over the failed Internet bank Icesave was particularly serious for Iceland. Since the Landsbankinn branch responsible for Icesave in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands was not established as a foreign subsidiary, UK and Dutch authorities maintained that the Icelandic government should provide the deposit insurance. This dispute, dominating the political scene in 2009 and again in early 2012 (Ingimundarson 2010: 64; Hallgrímsdóttir and Brunet-Jailly 2015), resulted in two referendums when Iceland’s president refused to sign an agreement between his government and the United Kingdom and the Netherlands on how Iceland should pay back the losses. When the Icelandic public voted in March 2010 and April 2011, both referendums were rejected. Important steps were also taken to investigate what had gone wrong, with the parliament appointing the first of three Special Investigation Committees in December 2008. The first committee investigated the fall of the three largest banks. When delivered in April 2010, it clearly confirmed and exposed serious neglect by politicians and public officials, as well as outing the criminal activities of some of the bankers (Gylfason 2012: 3). Two other investigative reports were also conducted by other Special Investigation Committees appointed by the parliament: one on Iceland’s Housing Fund (Íbúðarlánasjóður) (committee set 2010), and the other on the collapse of the Icelandic savings banks (committee set 2011).

From being alone toward symbolizing hope for Europe and the United States

The crash itself initiated a wide sense of vulnerability and a feeling of standing “alone” in a vast transnational world. Iceland’s decision to remain outside the European Union and the United States’ withdrawal of its military from Iceland in 2006 meant that when the disaster hit, “Iceland had no real support from other states” (Ingimundarson 2010: 68). Even when the IMF decided to step in, it was on the premise that the Icesave issue would be resolved, giving the impression that it was siding with the United Kingdom and the Netherlands (Hallgrímsdóttir and Brunet-Jailly 2015: 80). Some in Iceland even claimed that Iceland was the victim of an EU-led conspiracy (Bergmann 2014: 44) Thus, while the economic boom period provoked a feeling that Iceland had “finally” been recognized as one of the key European countries, the economic crisis seemed to unleash anxieties about Iceland’s place among dominant Western countries. This sentiment intensified with the British government’s decision to use the terrorist legislation that had been passed in Britain after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks to freeze Iceland’s assets in the United Kingdom during the Ice-save dispute. The use of this law against Iceland was interpreted widely in Iceland as putting the country in the same category as al-Qaeda and North Korea (Loftsdóttir 2014). In this context, the prime minister’s claim in early 2008 that he had extracted a promise from the IMF that Iceland would not be treated like a “Third World” state (Ingimundarson 2010: 67) can be seen as indicative of this perception of vulnerability. Simultaneously, however, the prime minister’s demand for such a promise reanimates past narratives in which Icelandic subjects struggle to distance themselves from those seen as uncivilized others and to constitute themselves as “proper” European subjects (Loftsdóttir 2012).

Anxieties about what the crash would mean for Iceland’s international image can be further illustrated by the general public’s reaction to the closing of McDonald’s one year after the crash. The closing was widely connected with the downfall of Iceland, as phrased by one of the men I interviewed: “This was symbolic; we are not a nation among nations. We don’t even have a McDonald’s here anymore” (Loftsdóttir 2014: 348). The phrase “nation among nations” clearly draws out how embedded this sense of loss is to Iceland, by signifying how the nation becomes a particularly meaningful construct that recreates a similar conception that characterized the boom period, when there was a vision of a shared destiny and a special role for Iceland in the international community. The intense soul-searching after the crash reflects the desire to create a new image for Iceland—or a “New Iceland” (Nýja Ísland), as it was often referred to in Iceland—while these desires also rested on scattered references to particular themes from the past, such as the fear of not belonging with the “right” kinds of Europeans.

The Icelandic “way” of dealing with crisis

After providing humiliating coverage during the first few months after the crash, the international media again took interest in Iceland within the context of a wider European economic crisis. With the unfolding of suggestive democratic reforms and referendums, Iceland began to receive high praise for how it handled the economic crisis. As emphasized by the anthropologist Jeffry Juris (2008), the political protests in Europe and the United States provided spaces of solidarity and solidification of old and new political movements, which were facilitated by new communication networks and media. As stated earlier, while some concerns were local, rooted in specific environments and histories, they were actively connected to wider movements and concerns elsewhere (Feixa et al. 2009). Elisabetta Ferrari (2016) emphasizes how these social movements shifted, to some extent, the emphasis from “being for or against something” to creating a solidarity of “doing something.” This creation of solidarity between people in different locations who were attempting to “do something” linked people across transnational space and made it so that they did not necessarily have to agree on priorities or causes.

Helga Hallgrímsdóttir and Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly (2015: 82–83) stress the importance of this wider context. They point out that the Icesave referendums captured the imagination of many people outside of Iceland precisely because they took place during these intensive social and political protests in the United States and Europe. As such, the referendums spoke directly to a larger global community of discontented individuals who were organizing action against austerity measures. Other topical issues resonated with the same sentiments calling for justice and democratic reforms, such as stories in the international media that stated that all the bankers in Iceland were jailed and that the Icelandic president had forsaken the banks instead of making the public carry the debt. The Washington Post and Bloomberg, among others, spoke of “the Icelandic way,” thus emphasizing the exceptionality of Iceland. The economist Joseph Stiglitz noted: “What Iceland did was right. It would have been wrong to burden future generations with the mistakes of the financial system.” The economist Paul Krugman also said: “Where everyone else bailed out the bankers and made the public pay the price, Iceland let the banks go bust” (Washington’s Blog 2012). The international media also spoke about lessons from Iceland, framing Iceland as a place that “we” could learn from.

The IMF also stressed the success of Iceland, which it seemed to see as beneficial to its own reputation, whereas before the economic crisis of 2008, the IMF was struggling to justify its existence (Chorev and Babb 2009). One IMF publication states that the “key to Iceland’s recovery was an IMF-supported program” (IMF 2011), thus emphasizing the IMF’s continued importance. However, in an interview with Business Insider, the Icelandic president said that the IMF had probably learned more from Iceland than Iceland had from the IMF (Taylor 2012). This sentiment speaks strongly to the community of the discontented global public who were protesting austerity measures. In this light, the article was, perhaps unsurprisingly and sensationally, headlined: “The president of Iceland tells us how he had the balls to stand up to Britain.” The text stressed Iceland’s uniqueness in terms of both democracy and landscape: “The tiny country is unique not only in its stunning geography but also in its open democracy. This democracy was pivotal in the choice to let three giant banks fail during the financial crisis” (Taylor 2012).

In some texts, the relevance of “the Icelandic way” for Europe as a whole is clearly spelled out, like in a news story from 2012 that begins by positioning itself as a comparative piece about Iceland and Ireland. At the end, the author reveals that the “real” comparison “isn’t between Iceland and Ireland. It is between Iceland and the European Union as a whole.” The writer continues by claiming that the European Union needs to change its policy; “five hundred million citizens of the European Union will have to learn some lessons from the 320,000 inhabitants of Iceland. If they don’t, they will learn what the end of mass prosperity feels like instead” (Hind 2012). In a world engulfed by economic insecurity and increased precariousness, Iceland seems to stand as a beacon of hope for a more just future, an example that despite grave financial difficulties things can be turned around and democratic processes can prevail.

Iceland’s new importance

These positive depictions of “the Icelandic way” in dealing with the crisis were especially welcomed in Iceland because of a domestic sense of political and moral bankruptcy that created the widespread sentiment that a new Icelandic subject was needed. The Special Investigation Committee’s report in 2010 exemplifies this, claiming that Icelanders should develop more “realistic, responsible and modern identi[ties]” (quoted in Grétarsdóttir et al. 2014). I suggest here that the reconstruction of the Icelandic subject in post-crisis Iceland revolved around two interlinked discursive formations, both having to do with a sense of Iceland’s perceived uniqueness: a notion of peculiarity and the idea of Iceland as having an important role in the world.

While the former focuses on presumed intrinsic characteristics of the Icelandic people and the latter revolves around Iceland’s geopolitical position, both work toward salvaging past nationalistic visualizations of the Icelandic subject. This nationalistic vision was then boosted and shaped for this new postcrash context by nation branding and the international discussion of Iceland, as previously mentioned. Older ideas of Iceland’s exceptional character and its important role in the world, reanimated during the boom period (seen in the notions of the business Viking and in discussions of Iceland becoming the financial center of the world), suffered a serious blow in the crash. In the postcrash discussion, however, the emphasis on the uniqueness of the Icelandic subject continued but became focused on peculiarity, as expressed with more of an ironic twist and sense of self-parody.

The act of self-parody was certainly present before the crash (see Kjartansdóttir and Schram 2013; K. Schram 2011), but in its aftermath self-parody became a key element in making Icelandicness meaningful again. John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff’s insights (2009: 25) on commercialization and international media for the current neoliberal atmosphere, where the “spectacle” of identity performance becomes a vehicle for finding the “true self,” are useful in partly understanding how this self-parody became important. Nation branding had certainly been experimented with before the crash, but it became much more systematic after 2010 (Loftsdóttir 2015; Grétarsdóttir et al. 2014). With joint efforts of the Icelandic government and various commercial parties interested in the tourism industry, the extremely successful campaign “Inspired by Iceland” was initiated. It aggressively used social media, and in the following year, the international interest in Iceland took a dramatic turn, if judged by the multiplying number of tourists to the country.

The goal of the campaign was twofold: to rebuild Iceland’s reputation in the international arena and to draw tourists to the country in order to boost the economy (Benediktsson et al. 2011). International stories focusing on democratic reforms or forms of other protest against the capitalist system were often embedded in exotic portrayals of Iceland that engaged simultaneously with this kind of nation branding and older conceptions of Iceland as not fully European, which facilitated the association with the exotic. The BBC News coverage of Iceland’s economic recovery in 2013 cites a “frozen island on the edge of the Arctic.” This exotic portrayal is supplemented by emphasis that the “recovery from economic crisis [is a] testament to the Icelandic character.” The text stresses the association between the country and “the people here [who] have for centuries clung to existence on a frozen remote island which is 70% tundra,” where “natural challenges have made the people here tough, tenacious, diligent and very hard working” (Lynam 2013).

The election of Best Party leader and founder Jón Gnarr can be taken as a case in point of the various identity “spectacles” (as phrased by Comaroff and Comaroff 2009) that both fitted within this recycled nationalistic imaginary of the nation and served the neoliberal sensibilities of nation branding. As argued by Dominic Boyer, the Best Party blurring of parody and sincerity can be located within a growing invasion of parody and “joke” political parties in the political scene. The elected Gnarr was at the time one of Iceland’s most loved comedians (2013: 280). In the campaign, he used social media more extensively than anyone previously in politics and actively appropriated symbols of popular culture to gain attention (Proppé 2014: 84). Gnarr often dressed up in drag when attending public events, including the Gay Pride festival in Reykjavík (2014: 88), catching the eyes of the international media and making Gnarr not only an Icelandic celebrity but also an international one. Gnarr’s extensive and out-spoken human rights support, particularly his celebration of gay rights, fit ideas of Nordic exceptionalism, wherein such countries are seen as particularly egalitarian and peaceful (on Nordic exceptionalism, see Loftsdóttir and Jensen 2012). Some of the articles transitioned between Gnarr as mayor of Reykjavík and as “saving” Iceland from the financial crisis, as the headline in the Independent in 2014: “Have you heard the one about Jon Gnarr, the comedian who saved Iceland from political and financial catastrophe?” Gnarr’s performances also fit well within the nation-branding exercise mentioned earlier, where there was a strong emphasis on Iceland as a “land of the unexpected,” “wild” and “raw” (see Loftsdóttir 2015), inhabited by peculiar people, such as Gnarr and the great number of Icelanders following him. As argued by scholars, the exotic becomes particularly appealing within a neoliberal nation branding, where the exotic, instead of being threatening, is conceptualized as symbolizing characteristics that “modern” people have lost (Therkelsen and Halkier 2004: 7).

For the Icelandic population, the new forms of nation branding and international media presentations reaffirmed Iceland’s new identity based on the roots of the exceptional character of the Icelandic people. Internal discussions, international media coverage, and campaigns by the tourist industry aiming to “rebuild” Iceland’s reputation thus engaged and enforced each other in building this momentum. Echoing these sentiments, the prime minister stated that “we”—presumably meaning the Icelandic people—have learned from living in a difficult country for centuries and that “Icelanders” don’t give up in the face of difficulties (Júlíusson 2008: 6). Such discourses also reflect how the past is brought into the present to give it a deeper understanding and how current crises are made meaningful with reference to past crises (Knight 2012: 370).

The mirage of a more democratic world

Despite the strong criticism of the “business Viking” narrative, the discourses in postcrash Iceland directly reanimate earlier reified notions of Icelandic subjectivity. What I find important to stress in the various discourses emphasizing the success of new democratic mobilizations in Iceland is that they overlap with a very familiar stress on Iceland’s perceived uniqueness. Indeed, while reflecting the wider global desires to see a new future in Iceland, they also replicate Iceland’s early twentieth-century aspirations to be “something” in the eyes of the rest of the world, so important during the economic boom. Thus, postcrash discourses manifest as a continuation of older discourses that translate into political aspirations for a new role for Iceland in a postcrash world. These aspirations do not necessarily signal the emergence of new political subjectivities in Iceland after the crash. With ideas surrounding Iceland’s uniqueness and international importance being reconstituted, they not only secure a stability of the Icelandic subject but also affirm Iceland’s status as a European subject—albeit an exceptional one.

But why was Iceland so important for the wider European community to better visualize a way out of crisis and that democracy would prevail in the future Europe? Was it a result of how well Iceland handled the aftermath of the crisis? Did the government refuse to let the public pay the price for the bank’s indiscretions? Did Iceland become a more democratic society? First, it seems incorrect to say that the Icelandic public or the Icelandic government made an informed decision to let the banks fail. The Icelandic government did in fact try to save the banks with foreign loans, but this ultimately failed (Byrne and Þorsteinsson 2012: 144). As the government could not refinance the banks, the only option available was to separate the domestic side of the banks from the international. Thus, the Icelandic “way” can be seen neither as a specific and strategic decision to stand up to the international banking system nor as following the will of the people, but simply as the only possibility left. Second, it is also incorrect that the Icelandic public did not have to pay anything to “save” the banks. Massive government sums of money went into saving the Central Bank in Iceland. The total costs of the collapsed banking system was estimated in 2012 to be 414 billion Icelandic krónur (approximately 2.5 billion euros), which amounted to 28 percent of governmental debt in 2012 (Júlíusdóttir 2012). As phrased by Elaine Byrne and Huginn F. Þorsteinsson (2012: 144), when comparing Iceland and Ireland, “It may seem strange to say this but what seems to be Ireland’s misfortune in this regard is just that the Irish banks were not big enough for policy makers to deem it virtually impossible to salvage them.”

Third, the assumptions that massive democratic reforms were successful in Iceland are dubious. The creation of the new constitution with more democratic participation exemplifies this well. The Constitutional Assembly elections were deemed invalid because of a technical claim, despite the technical mistake not being seen as affecting the result of the election. The ruling was strongly disputed and, according to the economist Þorvaldur Gylfason, widely seen as “an attempt by vested interest[s] to thwart the democratic process by killing the constitution assembly in its infancy” (2012: 16). Also, the same political parties that were in power during most of the years preceding the economic collapse regained power in the parliamentary elections in 2013. The reception of the results of the two remaining reports by the Special Investigation Committees in 2013 and 2014 (Hafberg et al. 2014; Stefánsson et al. 2013) reflected this different political atmosphere. The intense focus of the Icelandic media on the cost of these two reports seemed to overshadow wider societal discussions about their findings (Rúv 2013; H. Schram 2013). Some of those in the forefront of the Icelandic economic expansion have been convicted, while others have been allowed back into Icelandic business life (Rúv 2015; Júlíusson 2015). Moreover, despite higher economic growth due mainly to a tourist boom in the country following the extensive campaign to boost Iceland as a tourist destination, there have been extensive discussions about prevailing corruption in Icelandic society among top governmental offices (S. Ólafsson 2013), the flirtation of members of one of the parties in power with antiforeigner sentiments (Bjarnar 2014; Jakobsdóttir 2014; see also Bergmann 2015), and accusations of government silencing of the criticism of their activities (Jóhannsson 2015; Rúv 2011). These social debates and changes are, however, too extensive to discuss here.

The prevailing sentiment of a failure to initiate a new society can in part be seen as captured in the widely read and distributed article by the Icelandic author Bragi Páll Sigurðsson, in which he expresses his frustration with the “New Iceland” that people dreamed of in the postcrash period: “It does not work! We vote left and right, up and down, northwest … Regardless of who ‘wins,’ we lose. … The country is in ruins”2(Sigurðsson 2014).

Conclusion

I have stressed here a particular imagination of Iceland “as doing it right” in the aftermath of the economic crisis and what it says not only about political desires but also about larger dynamics within Europe. The Greek crisis, erupting at a similar time, became a symbol of corruption and governmental mismanagement, with the crisis being blamed, as demonstrated by Daniel Knight (2013), in Northern Europe on the Greek citizens and their government. We must ask what the various kinds of narratives about crisis in different parts of Europe can tell us about being and becoming European. What kind of hierarchies within Europe and what kind of past colonial aspirations become visible when we look at countries like Iceland, located at the margins of Europe? Why were Southern European countries, even sometimes dubbed as PIGS in the international community, criticized so harshly, when a country like Iceland was celebrated despite the crash undisputedly being caused by corruption within the country? How does power filter and work through such discourses, which situate some people as the winners and others as the losers in a geopolitical context? Who can default on their debts with what consequences?

In my argument here, I have speculated that Iceland becomes particularly desirable for securing the ideals of Europe as a cradle of democracy because it is marginal enough to make it possible to imprint on particular aspirations, while the country is simultaneously a part of Northern European countries. Northern Europe is often perceived as the site of rationality and proper European subjects, in contrast with Southern Europe (see De Cesari 2017). Political mobilizations, as scholars have stressed, are based on “affective solidarity” (Juris 2008: 63), which generates political subjectivities. The media provides one important outlet in creating this solidarity. From a certain perspective, Iceland enters more globally disseminated news not because of its own significance but more because it is interesting when put in relation with something else. In Iceland, however, the question of belonging within Europe has always been important, reflecting old anxieties of being classified with other subjected populations (Loftsdóttir 2008). Despite the harsh criticism of the presumed Icelandic core of the business Vikings that made them so adept at conducting business, similar reification of Icelandic identity could be seen in media and blog discussion right after the crash. The discussion emphasized Icelander as the “best”—not in banking, of course, but as enduring through crisis because of their resilient nature as shaped by centuries (Loftsdóttir 2009).

Finally, my analysis has contextualized a recent and current emphasis on Iceland’s peculiarity and how old narratives of Iceland as exotic and different from other Europeans that Icelanders tried for so long to distance themselves from are now expressed with a more ironic twist. Embraced to a certain extent by Icelandic people as a part of ongoing nationalistic discourse, its articulation in the present also takes a commercialized form through the process of nation branding.

Notes
1.

Icesave was subsidiary of one of the collapsed banks, Landsbankinn.

2.

“Af því það virkar ekki! Við kjósum hægri vinstri upp og niður norðnorðvestur, og sama hvernig fer er okkur riðið í andlitið. Sama hver ‘vinnur’ þá töpum við. Landið er bara ein rúst. En þegar fólk viðrar svona skoðanir þá er það stimplað ‘niðurrifsog afturhaldsöfl.’” All translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

References

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Contributor Notes

Kristín Loftsdóttir is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Iceland. Her research focuses on postcolonialism, whiteness, gender, racism, mobility, transnational belonging, and creation of European subjectivities. She has conducted research in Iceland, Niger, and Belgium. Her ongoing research focuses on Icelandic subjectivities in the aftermath of the economic crash of 2008, and irregular migrants in Brussels. E-mail: kristinl@hi.is

Focaal

Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • ÁrnasonVilhjálmur. 2014. “Something rotten in the state of Iceland: The production of truth about the Icelandic Banks.” In Gambling debt: Iceland’s rise and fall in the global economy ed. E. Paul Durrenberger and Gísli Pálsson4760. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BenediktssonKarl Katrín Anna Lund and Edward Huijbens. 2011. “Inspired by eruptions? Eyjafjallajökull and Icelandic tourism”. Mobilities 6 (1): 7784.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BergmannEríkur. 2014. “Iceland: A postimperial sovereignty project”. Cooperation and Conflict 49 (1): 3354.

  • BergmannEríkur. 2015. “Populism in Iceland: Has the Progressive Party turned populist?Stjórnmál og Stjórnsýsla 11 (1): 3354.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BernburgJón Gunnar. 2014. “Overthrowing the government: A case study in protest”. In Durrenberger and Pálsson Gambling debt6378.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BernburgJón Gunnar. 2015. “Economic crisis and popular protest in Iceland, January 2009: The role of perceived economic loss and political attitudes in protest participation and support”. Mobilization: An International Quarterly 20 (2): 231252.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BhambraGurminder K. 2011. “Historical sociology, modernity, and postcolonial critique”. American Historical Review 116 (3): 653662.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BjarnarJakob. 2014. “Moskuandstæðingar lýsa yfir stuðningi við Framsóknarflokkinn”. Vísir3 June. http://www.visir.is/moskuandstaedingar-lysa-yfir-studningi-vid-framsoknarflokkinn/article/2014140609716.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BoyerDominic. 2013. “Simply the best: Parody and political sincerity in Iceland”. American Ethnologist 40 (2): 276287.

  • ByrneElaine and Huginn F. Þorsteinsson. 2012. “Iceland: The accidental hero.” In What if Ireland defaults ed. Brian LuceyCharles Larkin and Constantin Gurdgiev135147. Dublin: Orpen Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CastañedaErnesto. 2012. “The indignados of Spain: A precedent to occupy Wall Street”. Social Movement Studies 11 (3–4): 309319.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ChorevNitsan and Sarah Babb. 2009. “The crisis of neoliberalism and the future of international institutions: A comparison of the IMF and the WTO”. Theory and Society 38 (5): 459484.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ComaroffJean and John L. Comaroff. 2000. “Millennial capitalism: First thoughts on a second coming”. Public Culture 12 (2): 291343.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ComaroffJohn L. and Jean Comaroff. 2009. Ethnicity Inc.. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • DaníelssonJón and Gylfi Zoega. 2009. The collapse of a country. Working paper series W09:03. Paris: Institute of Economic Studies. http://hhi.hi.is/sites/hhi.hi.is/files/W-series/2009/WP0903.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • De CesariChiara. 2017. “Museums of Europe: Tangles of memory, borders, and race”. Museum Anthropology 40 (1): 1835.

  • DurrenbergerE. Paul and Gísli Pálsson. 1989. “Introduction.” In The anthropology of Iceland ed. E. Paul Durrenberger and Gísli Pálssonixxxvii. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DzenovskaDace. 2013. “Historical agency and the coloniality of power in postsocialist Europe”. Anthropological Theory 13 (4): 394416.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • FeixaCarlesInes Pereira and Jeffrey S. Juris. 2009. “Global citizenship and the ‘new, new’ social movements: Iberian connections”. Young: Nordic Journal of Youth Research 17 (4): 421442.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • FerrariElisabetta. 2016. “Social media for the 99%? Rethinking social movements’ identity and strategy in the corporate web 2.0”. Communication and the Public 1 (2): 143158.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • FlanneryMark J. 2009. “Iceland’s failed banks: A post-mortem”. Viðauki 3 (Annex 3) http://www.rna.is/media/skjol/RNAvefVidauki3Enska.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GrétarsdóttirTinnaÁsmundur Ásmundsson and Hannes Lárusson. 2014. “Creativity and crisis”. In Durrenberger and Pálsson Gambling debt93106.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GylfasonÞorvaldur. 2012. “From collapse to Constitution: The case of Iceland”. CESifo Working Paper Series No. 3770. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2034241.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HafbergHrannar Már S.Tinna Finnbogadóttir and Bjarni Fr. Karlsson. 2014. “Skýrsla rannsóknarnefndar um rannsókn á aðdraganda og orsökum erfiðleika og falls sparisjóðanna”. Rannsóknarnefndir Alþingis. https://www.rna.is/sparisjodir/skyrsla-nefndarinnar.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HalldórssonÓlafur and Gylfi Zoega. 2010. Iceland’s financial crisis in an international perspective. Working paper series W10:02. http://hhi.hi.is/sites/hhi.hi.is/files/W-series/2010/WP1002.pdf. Paris: Institute of Economic Studies.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HallgrímsdóttirHelga Kristín and Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly. 2015. “Contentious politics, grassroots mobilization and the Icesave dispute: Why Iceland did not ‘play nicely.’Acta Sociologica 58 (1): 7993.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HollandDorothyDonald M. NoniniCatherine LutzLesley BartlettMarla Frederick-McGlatheryThaddeus C. Guldbrandsen and Enrique G. Murillo Jr. 2007. Local democracy under siege: Activism public interest and private politics. New York: New York University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HindDan. 2012. “From Iceland to Ireland: Two paths to financial recovery?Al Jazeera30 May. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/05/201252874716394428.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HreinssonPállTryggvi Gunnarsson and Sigríður Benediktsdóttir. 2010. “Rannsóknarnefnd Alþingis um aðdraganda og orsakir falls íslensku bankanna 2008”. Rannsóknarnefndir Alþingis. http://www.rna.is/eldri-nefndir/addragandi-og-orsakir-falls-islensku-bankanna-2008/skyrsla-nefndarinnar.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • IMF (International Monetary Fund). 2011. “Iceland conference. Iceland’s recovery: Can the lessons be applied elsewhere?” http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/survey/so/2011/surveyartf.htm.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • IngimundarsonValur. 2010. “‘A crisis of affluence’: The politics of an economic breakdown in Iceland”. Irish Studies in International Affairs 21 (1): 5769.

    • Search Google Scholar
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