January 16

A Capital Idea Part 144: Iceland Shows the Way

It's been a while since I did one of these travelogue-type posts, so here I go. I have been hearing on occasion of political reforms happening in Iceland -- not just a couple of new laws, but big reforms, like their citizens rewriting their Constitition, on the internet! Today, I did some internet searching to find out more about Iceland's reforms.

By way of background, Iceland is a Nordic nation situated in the middle of the North Atlantic, about halfway between Norway and Greenland. Clearly, it is a cold place, but being quite volcanic, Iceland has much geothermal energy which is put to good use, and some crops can be grown there, if not outside during the summer, at least in geothermally heated greenhouses. There are about 311,000 residents of Iceland, so its population is quite small, perhaps making participative democracy and big reforms more feasible than in most nations. These people are generally descended from what was almost certainly a fairly small number of Norwegian immigrants around 1,000 years ago or so, and there is a large scale genome project which the people of Iceland are doing. In fact, their new Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of "genotype." The recent transformation of Iceland began when neo-liberal (i.e., conservative, "trickle-down," deregulation-oriented) policies were instituted there a couple of decades ago. This resulted in a very hard crash in 2008 for Iceland, as the private banks were playing with everybody's money, and oops! They lost it. Where did it go? Time for a bailout. Well, instead of a bailout, the people of iceland said "No way!" and proceeded to write a new Constitution which (I think but cannot verify) banned banks from playing with people's money as well as instituting various other progressive and transparent, participative democracy type reforms. Meanwhile, many anti-bank, progressive types were elected to Iceland's legislature.

To give a little more personal introduction to Icelandic culture, there is a charming band known as Of Monsters and Men, which at first I thought was from someplace such as New Zealand. It turns out that they are from Iceland, and consists of their leader, the talented Nanna Halmarsdottir (my compliments to Halmar on his lovely daughter) and 5 nice-looking Icelandic male colleagues. In Iceland, you see, females are given their father's given name, plus "dottir" as a last name, and son's are given their father's first name, plus "son." They do not usually have surnames as most people do. I have noticed that in Iceland, women tend to dominate the political and social landscape, and wonder if this naming process has something to do with it. Anyway, it looks like iceland is starting to gain some positive attention. The band's official site is here: http://www.ofmonstersandmen.com/#!/ There are several videos of them playing songs, including their hit, "Little Talks." But I digress.

It's back to politics now. Birgitta Jonsdottir is an Icelandic poet who was thrust into the spotlight by Iceland's recent crisis and transformation. She is now a politician there, and wrote an interesting article on Iceland's reforms (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/nov/15/lessons-from-iceland-people-power). She wrote of the need to create a more transparent government motivating her and her fellow Icelandic citizens to ditch their old Constitution and create a new one. The main objective was to prevent corruption and nepotism in government, industry and banking, by having a people-oriented, openly democractic rule of law. Thus, she writes: "The foundation for the constitution was created by 1,000 people randomly selected from the national registry. We elected 25 people to put that vision into words. The new constitution is now in the parliament. It will be up to the 99% to call for a national vote on it so that we inside the parliament know exactly what the nation wants and will have to follow suit. If the constitution passes, we will have almost achieved everything we set out to do. Our agenda was written on various open platforms; direct democracy is the high north of our political compass in everything we do.

Having the tools for direct democracy is not enough though. We have to find ways to inspire the public to participate in co-creating the reality they want to live in. This can only be done by making direct democracy more local. Then people will feel the direct impact of their input. We don't need bigger systems, we need to downsize them so they can truly serve us and so we can truly shape them."

I find it strange that randomly selected people were used to write the basis of the new Constitution. Why not let everybody participate? Well, maybe to prevent a few loudmouths from dominating the conversation. Anyway, there were means for everybody to ultimately participate. In fact, this is known as the world's first "crowdsourced" Constitution. According to erasiareview.com, any Icelander could make comments on the Constitution building process and participate in its construction through a special website for this purpose, or through Facebook or Twitter (http://www.eurasiareview.com/22102012-icelanders-back-first-crowdsourced-constitution/). Details regarding what is in the Constitution are rather sketchy at this time, perhaps because the process has not been completed, but it includes and extensive section on Human Rights
( http://www.slaw.ca/2011/06/14/iceland-crowd-sources-constitutional-reform/). It also deeds to the public (as "national property") any natural resources which are not already privately owned. I am not sure how this would change the status of privately and publicly owned lands, except that private interests could never acquire these public resources, which is certainly a very good thing. Meanwhile, there are laws being passed by Iceland's Parliament to prevent banks from using clients' money as "investments" (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-08-03/post-crisis-iceland-is-test-site-for-too-big-to-fail-prevention.html). What isn't clear to me, is whether or not these safeguards are also being written into the new Constitution, but I should think so. Also, I did not see anything about the creation of a government run bank in Iceland, which would be highly advisable, and in my opinion, should be written into the Constitution. (People of Iceland, are you listening?)

Iceland was already a fairly well-educated and prosperous, as well as relatively progressive nation, before any of this happened, which in addition to Iceland's small population, qualifies their dynamic approach to political reform as perhaps beyond the reach of most nations. However, Iceland is showing a progressive way forward, and I believe, the efforts of Iceland's people to reform their system, will prove to be a great success. Certainly, Iceland can serve as a model of democratic, economic and political reform for nations around the world. Already, a comment on one of the sites mentions, Morocco is having internet based people-driven rewriting of its Constitution underway, just as has happened in Iceland (http://www.slaw.ca/2011/06/14/iceland-crowd-sources-constitutional-reform/). (See the first comment for the information regarding Morocco.) Eventually, every nation I believe, will be compelled to make such changes, although it may be more complex for the larger nations.


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