Lessons from Iceland: The People Can Have the Power

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the Guardian/UK

Lessons from Iceland: The People Can Have the Power

As early progress in Iceland shows since the banking collapse, the 21st century will be the century of the common people, of us

The Dutch minister of internal affairs said at a speech during free press day this year: "Law-making is like a sausage, no one really wants to know what is put in it." He was referring to how expensive the Freedom of Information Act is, and was suggesting that journalists shouldn't really be asking for so much governmental information. His words exposed one of the core problems in our democracies: too many people don't care what goes into the sausage, not even the so-called law-makers, the parliamentarians.

If the 99% want to reclaim our power, our societies, we have to start somewhere. An important first step is to sever the ties between the corporations and the state by making the process of lawmaking more transparent and accessible for everyone who cares to know or contribute. We have to know what is in that law sausage; the monopoly of the corporate lobbyist has to end – especially when it comes to laws regulating banking and the internet.

The Icelandic nation only consists 311,000 souls, so we have a relatively small bureaucratic body and can move quicker then in most countries. Many have seen Iceland as the ideal country for experimentation for new solutions in an era of transformation. I agree.

We had the first revolution after the financial troubles in 2008. Due to a lack of transparency, corruption and nepotism, Iceland had the third largest financial meltdown in human history, and it shook us profoundly. The Icelandic people realized that everything we had put our trust in had failed us. One of the demands during the protests that followed – and that resulted in getting rid of the government, the central bank manager and the head of the financial authority – was that we would get to rewrite our constitution. "We" meaning the 99%, not the politicians who had failed us. Another demand was that we should have real democratic tools, such as being able to call directly for a national referendum and dissolve parliament.

As an activist, web developer and poet, I never dreamt of being a politician and nor have I ever wanted to be a part of a political party. That was bound to change during these exceptional times. I helped create a political movement from the various grassroots movements in the wake of the crisis. We were officially created eight weeks prior to the election, and based our structure on horizontalism and consensus. We had no leaders, but rotating spokespeople; we did not define ourselves as left or right but around an agenda based on democratic reform, transparency and bailing out the people, not the banks. We vowed that no one should remain in parliament longer then eight years and our movement would dissolve if our goals had not been achieved within eight years. We had no money, no experts; we were just ordinary people who'd had enough and who needed to have power both within the system and outside it. We got 7% of the vote and four of us entered the belly of the beast.

Many great things have occurred in Iceland since our days of shock in 2008. Our constitution has been rewritten by the people for the people. A constitution is such an important measure of what sort of society people want to live in. It is the social agreement. Once it is passed, our new constitution will bring more power to the people and give us proper tools to restrain those in power. 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.

The capital city of Reykjavík has launched a direct democracy platform, where everyone can put in a suggestion in a community forum about things they want to be done in the city. The city council has to take the top five suggestions and process them every month. Next step is to have a similar system for the parliament, and the logical step after that is to have the same system for the ministries.

From conversations I have had with people from Occupy London it is obvious we are all thinking along the same lines. All systems are down: banking, education, health, social, political – the most logical thing would be to start a fresh system based on values other than consumerism, which maximises profit and self-destruction. We are strong, the power is ours: we are many, they are few. We are living in times of crisis. Let's embrace this time for it is the only time real changes are possible by the masses.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir

Birgitta Jónsdóttir is a poet who has served since April 2009 as an MP in the Icelandic parliament for the Movement, a political movement for democratic reform beyond party politics, which she helped create. Birgitta was chief sponsor for the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), and is chair of the International Modern Media Institute. She is also on the Bradley Manning advisory board

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