Eurozone crisis: Iceland is our modern Utopia

Reykjavik. The Town hall and the old city from the Tjornin lake.
Reykjavik. The Town hall and the old city from the Tjornin lake.
23 December 2011 – Público (Madrid)

In rejecting by referendum a bailout for their toxic banks and the repayment of external debt, the citzens of Iceland have shown it is possible to escape the laws of capitalism and take control of one's destiny, writes a Spanish historian.

Since the times of Oscar Wilde it has been known that a map without the island of Utopia on it is a map “not worth even glancing at”. Despite that, the journey of Iceland from the darling of late capitalism to a project in true democracy suggests that a map without Utopia is not only unworthy of our attention, but is also a hoax conjured up by a defective cartography. Whether the markets like it or not, the lighthouse of Utopia has begun flashing faint warning signals to the rest of Europe.

Iceland is not Utopia. It is known that there can be no kingdoms of liberty within the Empire of necessity of late capitalism. But it is a recognition of a dramatic absence. Iceland is proof that capital does not own all the truth there is to this world, even when it aspires to control all the maps we can lay out.

With its decision to halt the wheel of tragedy of the markets, Iceland has set a precedent that could threaten to break the back of late capitalism. For now, this small island, which is doing what was claimed to be too unreal to be possible, does not seem to be sinking into chaos, though it does seem to be sinking into an information blackout. How much information are we getting from Iceland and how much on the loans to Greece? Why has Iceland gone off the pages of some of the media that should be telling us what is happening out there in the world?

A constitution drafted by citizen assemblies

So far it has been the birthright of those in power to define what is real and what is not, what can be thought and done and what can not. The cognitive maps deployed in order to understand our world have always had obscure corners where lies the barbarism that upholds the dominions of the elites. Those unmapped shadows of the world usually go with the elimination of their opposite, the island of Utopia. Walter Benjamin has already put it in writing: There is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

These elites, aided by theologians and economists, have been defining what is real and what is not: what is realistic, according to this definition of reality, and what is not and therefore an aberration of thought that cannot be taken into account. That is, what can be done and thought and what can not. But they have done it, in accordance with the basis of power and its violence: the dreaded concept of necessity. One must make sacrifices, they say with a stricken gesture. Either adapt, or face the unimaginable catastrophe. Late capitalism has exposed its logic in a perversely Hegelian way: all that is real is necessarily rational, and vice versa.

In January 2009, the Icelandic people rebelled against the arbitrariness of this logic. The peaceful demonstrations of the crowd brought down the Conservative cabinet of Geir Haarde, and running the country fell to a left-leaning parliamentary minority, which called elections for April 2009. The Social Democratic Alliance of Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir and the Left-Green Movement renewed their coalition government with an absolute majority. In autumn 2009, by a popular initiative, a Constitution began to be drafted by citizen assemblies. In 2010, the Government proposed creating a national constitutional council whose members would be chosen by lot. Two referenda (the second in April 2011) refused to rescue the banks and pay the foreign debt. In September 2011 the former Prime Minister, Geir Haarde, was put on trial for his role in the crisis.

Every map of Europe should have Iceland at its vanishing point

To forget that the world is not a Greek tragedy in which the wheel of fate or of capital turns without regard to human reason is to deny reality. It is obvious that the wheel is moved by human beings. All that we can imagine being possible is as real as what the markets tell us is the reality. A sense of possibilities and the human imagination itself, recovered in Iceland, teach us that they are as true and real as the gargantuan necessity of capitalism. We just have to heed this call to discover the trap that is trying to make us believe in that necessity. There is no alternative, they declare. Perhaps some of those announcing sacrifices to us have bothered to check their map of the world?

Iceland has shown that our cartography contains more than they are telling us. That it is possible to dominate – and therein lies the principle of freedom – that ‘necessity’. Iceland, however, is not a model. It is one of the possibilities for doing things differently. The intent of the crowds in Iceland to build the future with their decisions and their imagination shows us the reality of an alternative. Because the possibility of doing things differently as proclaimed by the crowd is as real as the need to carry on doing things the same way that is demanded by capital. In Iceland they have decided not to let the shape of tomorrow be dictated by the tragic wheel of necessity. Will the rest of us continue permitting what is real to be defined by capital? Will we continue to surrender the future, the realm of the possible, and our imaginations to the banks, the corporations and governments that claim to be doing everything that can possibly be done?

Every map of Europe should have Iceland at its vanishing point. This map must be constructed with the certainty that what is possible is built into the real just as deeply as is the necessary. The necessity is just one more possibility of what is real. There is an alternative. Iceland has reminded us of it by proclaiming that the imagination is part of humane reasoning. It is the crowd that will define what is real and realistic, using the possibility of doing things differently. This way, we are not cheering ourselves on with the consolations of dreamers, but are settling on a part of reality that the map of capital wants to wipe out completely. The existence of Utopia depends on it. And with this, the concept of a life worth living.

Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer

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