In the second part of the interview with Hjalti Hrafn Hafthorsson of Alda, we discuss the post-crash situation in Iceland, Alda’s plans for the future and how present society might change.
I suppose the story that’s emerged from Iceland since the crash of 2008 is that the state didn’t bail-out insolvent banks because it didn’t have the money, and as result the Icelandic economy is recovering and the depredations of austerity have been avoided. Is that an accurate summary or does it miss something?
The three big banks in Iceland were nationalized during the crash. Two of them were almost immediately given over to stakeholders; no-one seems to know who owns them today. There are plans to re-privatise the third one. The government took on a lot of debt but the bankers weren’t bailed out, at least not the high profile Icelandic bankers. Like I said, no-one seems to know who owns these banks today. There were considerable austerity measures, the recession has been felt by everyone. The government claims that the economy is recovering but since there have been no structural reforms in the economic model we are working in all that really means is that the rich are again getting richer and the rest of us must wait for the money to trickle down.
There was a large-scale constitutional reform process in Iceland in 2012. Could you say a bit about that process and what Alda’s input was?
An elected committee of 25 individuals was given mandate to write a new constitution. The election was ruled to be illegal because of a technicality but the parliament chose to form the comity anyways. Alda turned in very detailed suggestions for constitutional reforms but it was very difficult to get feedback on whether they were even read by the committee. None of them made it into the constitution bill in any recognizable form. The new constitution bill is in many ways progressive but it is being opposed by some very powerful interest groups, namely the fishing industry, and now it seems likely that it will be held up in the parliament until elections come this spring. Constitution changes need to be accepted by two parliaments so if the bill isn’t voted on before elections we can forget about any constitution reforms for at least four more years, probably just altogether.
Alda wants a welfare system that maintains the foundations of civil society, offering equal access to education, health-care and a pension. What, in practice, does this involve?
Pretty much what it involves now: people and companies paying taxes which are put to use running the infrastructure of a healthy society. Alda has a topic group working on reforming the education system in very fundamental ways and some of the versions of unconditional basic income we have talked about require comprehensive revision of the welfare system.
What advice would you give to people in other countries struggling against endless corporate bail-outs, government-imposed austerity and economic stagnation or collapse? What should they do?
Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can. I think the Alda model is good for promoting social change and I think it can easily be taken up pretty much anywhere.
What does the future hold for Alda? What are your immediate aims?
We have a lot of projects going on. Elections are coming up, so we are holding a randomly selected citizens assembly to set the tone for the political parties on what the people want to see happen during next term. We are working on getting a bill through parliament about laws for co-operatives. We are working with the labour unions to get a shorter work day on the agenda. We are working two schools on democratic education programmes. We are starting an eco-village in collaboration with other groups. We have more topic groups working than I can recall at the top of my head. In the future I hope we will do just what we have been doing, get people involved in finding solutions to problems and then agitate for those solutions.
One recurring question is how current society will change. A large scale, oppositional movement seems indispensable. Do you have any ideas about what is necessary to build that movement?
It might take a large scale movement but I think change is better brought about by many smaller ones. There is a vast variety of groups and ideologies out there working on different fronts. That has great advantages as well as disadvantages. I am not sure that a unified big movement would be better, that kind of vision for change almost always involves heavy top down, authoritative organization. The spontaneous organization of smaller groups trying to influence and affect social change through diverse methods is more likely to lead to a happy society in the end.
There is also the question on how change should take form. Some believe that change cannot occur except in a sweeping revolution, others are content with any progress in the right direction. Both visions have merits and I think there must be a little bit of both. There is a lot of build-up to any revolution.