In October of 2008, Iceland's economy collapsed. In that same month Hörður Torfason, an Icelandic actor and activist, stood out front of the parliament buildings asking two simple questions: what has happened to our country, and what are we going to do about it?
From there built a popular movement that would grow to sizes as yet unheard of in the tiny Nordic country, forcing the resignation of the government, and of the leadership of the financial authority and the national bank.
A revolutionary folk hero at home, Torfason now spends much of his time touring the world, telling the bittersweet story of Iceland's Nordic Spring, and sharing tactics and strategies with activists in other countries.
In this exclusive interview with rabble.ca, Torfason explains that despite all it accomplished, Iceland's movement remains unfinished. The current government, elected on a wave of popular anger, has a mixed record, having stumbled badly on some key files. With elections scheduled for the end of April, Torfason fears that the popular desire for change will sweep a reactionary, right-wing government to power.
We talked to Torfason before he spoke at a potlatch dinner hosted, appropriately enough, in a sprawling housing coop in Montreal's East End. Two days earlier Torfason had spoken to a crowd of hundreds at the Montreal stop on his international speaking tour, organized by Concordia activist Benjamin Prunty. From Montreal he returned to Iceland, and will soon be leaving for New Zealand for a series of speaking engagements.
rabble.ca: First of all, for people in Canada who have heard some information regarding the events in Iceland, but might not have a strong grasp of the facts, could you just give us a quick summary of what has happened in Iceland over the last number of years?
Hörður Torfason: Well, in October 2008 we faced a [financial] collapse, which was a shock for the entire nation. We are a small country of 320,000 people in a nation that covers about 103,000 square kilometers. We have lived for decades being told by our government that we were one of the richest countries in the world, but something strange was going on, it didn’t really fit with reality. For people like me who travel the world and see a lot of things, there was something lacking. But people wanted to believe what was said and behaved accordingly. On October 6th 2008, the prime minister came on national television and told us something serious had happened. This was on a Monday and the banks were closed. We weren’t sure what was happening, but the government maintained that everything was under control. A lot of people lost a lot of money. Looking back at that time we all sort of knew that the money we invested with the national bank existed only in our dreams. The bank pretended to give you an interest rate on your money, but really it was all a fraud, so you didn’t lose the money you invested, you lost your dream, your imaginary earnings. This upset a lot of people. At first, people were at a loss and didn’t know what to do, me included. Since then, I’ve devoted my life to this struggle for our rights.
On October 11th, I stood in front of the parliament with two questions; Can you tell me what has happened in our country? And, can you tell me what we can do about it? I’m a known artist in my country, so I used my webpage, I sent out emails for others to come. Not many people came. I stood there and I talked to the forty or fifty people that gathered. They were shy but they were angry. So what I did is I said, “let’s talk. My question is this, do you have any ideas about what is happening [in this country]?” I stood there day after day at 12 o’clock, because that was the lunchtime for politicians working inside the house [parliament]. After three days I realized that standing and asking questions wasn’t enough. So I got a car, sound equipment, drove around and announced that I was planning a big demonstration. I called friends of mine, artists and intellectuals, to try and clarify what was really going on. The problem is that media is owned by the rich in our country and controlled by politicians and political parties, so I started these outdoor meetings to share information. It’s an old idea from the Greeks. That’s all I have been doing. I was trying to inform people about what was going on and start a conversation with the politicians. Little by little, these meetings grew into bigger demonstrations, where thousands and thousands of people marched. Every Saturday, there was an outdoor meeting with speakers, and a gathering of thousands of angry people trying to create a dialogue. Little by little we agreed on our three major demands; for the government to step down, for the board of the national bank to step down, and for the board of the financial supervisory authority to step down.
I created a forum in these demonstrations for people to express themselves. It was non-violent, and at every meeting I read the three demands, asking thousands and thousands of people, “Is this what you want”? And they said “yes”. On the 20th of January 2009, I organized a rally to surround parliament, to make the politicians listen to us, because they always pretended we didn’t exist. I was expecting a few hundred people to join me, because it was at 1 o’clock in the middle of the day, but there were thousands of people, literally thousands upon thousands. I asked them to bring their drums, and pots and pans. They were angry, and people gathered there and protested continuously for four days. From early morning to late night there were bonfires, there were drums, and thousands of people. One of the things I was organizing was called the Orange Army, a civilian patrol meant to minimize the possibility of violence, and to protect police and all citizens. On about January 26, we had the biggest protest yet. The streets were filled with people everywhere, and the day after this happened the first minister resigned. On Monday, the government and the Financial Supervisory Authority both resigned. However we had the problem of the national bank. The leader of the bank was a former minister in Iceland, and put himself into the position of director of the national bank. He did not know how to run the bank. A month later he stepped down from his position.
We started learning how deep and widespread the corruption was, and we were in shock. From 2009-2011, this information came to light and we are learning more still today. In 2008 we were facing bankruptcy as a nation. Looking back things turned out much better than we expected. Roughly speaking what happened was that at the end of 2010 and early 2011, the rest of world seemed to wake up to the financial crisis. We are talking about thousands of people who lost their homes, and are in debt for the rest of the lives. In Iceland, if you are in debt and you die, it passes on to your children. It’s a very bad situation, so we are still fighting for compensation. The world has the idea that we have solved all of our problems, which is why since 2011 I’ve been travelling the world [to tell our story]. In a way it’s my duty, because I think we can share experiences and learn from each other. Every country I visit, I learn about the situation there. From here I go back to Iceland, and then to New Zealand.
rabble: How do you feel about the current government in Iceland? You were able to accomplish your objective of getting rid of the last government, so have you seen an improvement since then?
HT: That's a good question. The government we ousted was a right wing party that preached neo-liberalism, gave away our natural resources, and left us in huge debt. The government in place now has done some amazing things, but also has made some mistakes. They gave back the national bank to idiots.
rabble: Were you hoping they would keep the banks nationalized?
HT: Well they did [nationalize the banks], but then they privatized them again. They went too fast and made a lot of mistakes, and we are paying the price for that. We are having an election again in the end of April, and we are worried that because people are angry and dissatisfied they will vote for the right wing party again. So there is a lot of chaos and confusion and debates right now in Iceland. We’ll see what happens in two months time.
rabble: So what are some of those lessons that you think are important to take from what happened in Iceland, particularly in terms of taking down the government? Are there some lessons you would pass on to organizers elsewhere?
HT: Well I hope so because as I said, I’ve been to many countries and have been talking to a lot people. They are asking me questions about what I have done, but then they are not using my model. For example I was here lecturing for an hour. My speech was based on my life as an activist. I’m a professional actor; but I stepped out of the theatre in ‘72 because I didn’t feel like I had to borrow words from a playwright. I had my own voice. As an activist I’ve gone into exile, people have tried to kill me, it’s been a very rough life. I’ve worked in a way within the system I want to change maintaining that if something is unjust in the world, you have to stand up and correct it. You cannot just sit on your sofa, or else nothing would ever change. I’ve learned many things in my lifetime about how to protest, and I’m ready to share it with other people if they’d like to use it.
rabble: How important to social change do you think it is to have strong social movements and people in the streets fighting for the type of changes they would like to see?
HT: Well no government wants people to stand up and protest. They want to hold onto power and maintain the status quo. I remind them continuously that the government is there to work for the people, and they should listen and respect the will of the people. But that’s exactly what is missing. Many politicians have been in power for 20-30 years, the same people working within the power structure. They lose their connection with ordinary people. So that’s what I’m reminding politicians of, not to forget the people as we are the voters, they need to keep that in mind for the next election.
rabble: What about the media situation in Iceland? A problem we had here in Quebec with the Maple Spring was that the media was fairly clearly opposed to the social movement. Have you had similar problems in Iceland?
HT: [Laughs] It’s exactly the same! Money and political parties control the media, and they don’t want people to protest. They work against us [to maintain their power]. I don’t trust the media. I remember the first time when I stood in front of parliament, I was looking for young people who were good with computers, because that’s our media now, Facebook and so on. I found them on the third day and asked them to help me, and they said yes. That really was the catalyst that reached thousands of supporters through social media and emails.
rabble: So you did all this by going around mainstream media? Did the movement ever get a lot of coverage from the mainstream media?
HT: No, they tried to silence us. If they ever talked about me it was so negative, but you try not to listen to things like that.
rabble: Anything else you would like to add?
HT: The message is that you spread your word through non-traditional media formats; Out of this revolution we had all sorts of people fighting to get back their homes [which had been foreclosed upon]. We managed to elect people into parliament who are now fighting to make a change. Birgitta Jónsdóttir has been especially active as a member of parliament. She managed to pass a bill, based on an idea we call ‘immi’. The bill provides protection for whistleblowers and a place to publish the information they have found out.
Thanks to Robin Sas for transcription of this interview.