Imagining a New Society: Comparisons from Iceland

by: Posted on: August 08, 2013

Editor’s Note: Davis Maas, a retired political science professor, looks at recent events in Iceland as a source of learning for the pro-democracy, reform-minded, United States Citizen.

Living Democracy Bellingham seeks to understand and explain why communities cannot protect their health, safety, and welfare; why corporations have more rights than people and their governments; why nature is viewed as a resource to be subjugated, used, and exploited; why the American Constitution undermines popular influence; how social movements have combated unjust rules and laws in the past; how cities and towns are saying no to corporate attacks and submissive politicians, and saying yes to protecting their lives, their homes, their livelihoods, and their futures; and what people can do to strengthen their community’s “right to decide.”

It is our hope that we can encourage popular involvement that will ultimately reform our polity, economy, constitutions, and society. Occasionally our discussions about future changes are met with disbelief and charges of utopianism or unrealistic thinking. Nevertheless, there are examples of communities trying to achieve significant political, social, and economic reforms. Iceland is a good example.

Do you remember the documentary film on the 2008 recession “Inside Job”?  The film begins with the collapse of Icelandic banks. As the magnitude of corruption and criminal trading spread, the number of popular protests multiplied. Eventually the “pots and pans revolution,” as it became known, forced the incumbent government out of office.

On February 1, 2009 the Social Democratic-Green coalition government led by Johanna Siguroardottir, was sworn in. The new government “located the source of the (economic) crisis not only in the risk-blind investment practices of the banks, their gargantuan leveraging-up of lending, their selling of non-secured assets in an unprecedentedly short period, and their insider-trading; but also in the complicity of members of successive governments in these actions.” (1) It became apparent that because of ingrained private relationships between political leaders and fishing/banking interests, an ineffective media, and individual greed, nothing was going to happen.

Then in June 2010 the Althingi, Iceland’s parliament, passed an act establishing a Constitutional Assembly that was charged with writing a new national constitution. This led to a meeting of 1,500 selected citizens from different walks of life. The participants were divided into small groups and were charged with answering the question “what does Iceland mean in the twenty-first century?” This was the beginning of a “revolution from below,” which would raise controversial and challenging questions about what kind of social, cultural, and political order would best encapsulate Icelandic values and aspirations.

Notice the difference here between the legalistic-historical constitution perspective and the “civic democratic” one.  Typically framers of constitutions write fundamental laws that define their conception of a republican or a democratic government. In contrast, the constitutional authors in Iceland believe in what has been called “democratic constitutionalism,” which supports “the freedom of the members of an open society to change the constitutional rules of mutual recognition and association from time to time as their identities change.” (2)

In November 2010 the Constitutional Gathering brought together 950 randomly selected Icelandic citizens to discuss basic values and constitutional principles. Eight fundamental themes were identified:  country and nation; morality; human rights; justice, well-being and equality; conservation and utilization of nature in Iceland; democracy; division of power, responsibility; and transparency, peace, and international cooperation. (3)

The act also started a process of electing twenty-five members to the Constitutional Council. Any citizen could apply. Politicians and government officeholders were prohibited from running for a position on the Council. The election campaign was short and confusing. Voters had to choose 25 people from a list of 500 candidates. Only thirty-nine percent of the electorate bothered to vote. Right-wing opponents immediately challenged the election’s legitimacy.

The individuals that were chosen were then appointed to the Constitutional Council, which was given four months to write an entirely new constitution. During the writing of the constitution the Councillors appeared on television once a week to debate the submissions and amendments they had received. All public communication with the Constitutional Council was posted online. The Council had an accessible website and a Facebook page. Citizens were also encouraged to use Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr.   Intelligence was also collected from “state of the art Constitutional practices from around the world.” (2) The Council finished its work by the end of July 2011.

The new Constitution’s preamble is clear and unequivocal: “We, the people of Iceland, wish to create a just society with equal opportunity for everyone. Our different origins enrich the whole, and together we are responsible for the heritage of the generations, the land and history, nature, language, and culture. Iceland is a free and sovereign state, resting on the cornerstones of freedom, equality, democracy, and human rights.”

Chapter II of the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, speech, media, assembly, and association along with more positive rights like the right to “an adequate standard of living and social security,” right to “mental and physical health to the highest standard possible, a right to education, the right to information, and the right “to fair pay and other work-related rights.” These rights are found in many national and international charters today, but they are unheard of in the United States, where more libertarian traditions prevail.

An environmental right was also included in the draft: “Iceland’s nature constitutes the basis for life in the country. All shall respect and protect it. All shall by law be accorded the right to a healthy environment, fresh water, unpolluted air and unspoiled nature. This means that the diversity of life and land must be maintained and nature’s objects of value, uninhabited areas, vegetation and soil shall enjoy protection. Earlier damages shall be repaired as possible.”

There are also provisions for citizen initiatives. Two percent of the voters can bring an issue before the legislature, and ten percent may sponsor a bill. Ten percent may also demand a referendum on legislation passed by the Althingi. The Althingi may pass a bill amending the constitution but voters must approve the changes.

Article 34 is the most controversial part of the constitution. It declares that “Iceland’s natural resources that are not privately owned shall be the joint and perpetual property of the nation. No one can acquire the natural resources, or rights connected thereto, as property for permanent use and they may not be sold or pledged. Publicly owned natural resources include . . . marine stocks, other resources of the ocean and its bottom within Iceland’s economic zone and the sources of water and water-harnessing rights, the rights to geothermal energy and mining. In the use of natural resources, sustainable development and public interest shall be used for guidance.”

The constitutional draft was forwarded to the Althingi. It was strongly opposed by the Independent and Progressive conservative parties. The conservative alliance eventually stopped the bill from passing. According to most observers the opponents were primarily concerned about the nation’s ownership of its natural resources and the loss of fishing quotas owned by the elite. For some, the conflict over the constitution was really over who owned the country. (4)

When the government realized they could not pass the constitution bill, they voted to submit the draft to voters. More than two-thirds of those who voted (49% of the electorate) said yes to five of the six substantive questions listed on the ballot: yes (67%) for accepting the constitutional draft written by the Constitutional Council; yes (87%) to the national ownership of natural resources; yes (57%) to establishing a national church; yes (78%) to permitting more personal elections to the Althingi (as opposed to relying on party lists);  yes (67% ) to equitable voting (presently voting constituencies are weighted); and yes (73%) for enabling voters to call for national referenda on specific issues.

In the end the popular acceptance of the new constitution did not matter. The Althingi failed to pass the constitutional draft and the conservative party alliance won the national election in April 2013. Despite the defeat the Icelandic people did rise up and express their frustration and anger over the financial thuggery and political failings of their government. The prime minister was convicted of negligence, there was no bailout, and austerity recommendations were rejected. Reforms were enacted and there was support for more popular involvement in policy-making, a new social-democratic alliance, and a revised constitution.

One activist summarized the unresolved issues: “The financial system has not been restructured but restored. And a system that is restored will yield the same results. The political system, trusted by only ten percent of the population has not been fundamentally revised either. Most of the changes were minor and cosmetic. The path toward a real democracy is becoming clearer-and it will be a long one. That was already obvious in 2009; just after the elections for parliament, many sensed that the left-wing government simply didn’t have the ideas and institutional models for restructuring our financial and political systems. Political parties didn’t have a plan B-(and actually TINA, There Is No Alternative-has been one of the Icelandic right’s strongest arguments during the last twenty years).” (5)



1. Richard Bater (December 2011) “Hope from Below:  Composing the Commons in Iceland.” Open Democracy. See also the Special Investigation Commission’s report (the so–called Truth Report) on the causes of the economic crisis. The Working Group on Ethics traced Iceland’s financial meltdown  to a flawed privatization policy that allowed inexperienced bankers to make irresponsible and fateful decisions.  In turn governmental institutions failed to carry out their supervisory obligations.

2.              James Tully (2001) “Introduction,” in A.G. & J. Tully (eds) Multinational Democracies (Cambridge University Press, 5-6; quoted in Paul Blokker, (January 2012) “Grassroots Constitutional Politics in Iceland.”

3.              Identified in Blokker, “Grassroots Constitutional Politics in Iceland,” page 7.

4.              See Thordhildur Thorieifsdottir (November 12, 3012) “From the People to the People, a New Constitution.”  Open Democracy.

5.              Krstinn Mar Arsaelsson (November 2012) “Real Democracy in Iceland?”  Open Democracy.  She is one of the founders of the Association for Sustainability and Democracy (ALDA).


Photo: Kenny Muir/Flickr

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