Interview with Siggi Pönk about Anarchism in Iceland
The interview was conducted in 2010 for the German book »Von Jakarta bis Johannesburg: Anarchismus weltweit«. This is the original English version.
Can you tell us about the history of anarchism in Iceland?
Iceland does not have a long or strong history of anarchist activity. You can dig up a few articles about anarchism in old leftist and cultural publishing from the beginning of the last century, and in 1950 the biography of Kropotkin was translated into Icelandic and published. We do not know of any organized groups of anarchists ever having been active in Iceland before late last century, only a few scattered individuals who seem to have had interest in anarchism.
Anarchist activity in the last ten years has concentrated on translating and publishing, pamphlets and books like “About Anarchism” by Nicholas Walter, an Icelandic version of Crimethinc’s “Days of War, Nights of Love” and a primer/handbook on direct action and civil disobedience. Activism by anarchists came to Iceland first with the Saving Iceland campaign which started setting up direct action summer camps around 2004. Saving Iceland was started by an Icelandic anarchist who was pressingly aware of the urgent need for direct action in the campaign against the energy-hungry aluminium industry which still threatens to destroy Iceland’s wilderness with hydro- and geothermal damming for cheap energy.
The actions – including lock-on’s and blockades – were, to the Icelanders, a completely new form of protest (the police had to invent Icelandic words for “lock-on” for their reports). The media had problems with understanding that the movement had no leaders and that all decisions were made by consensus.
The summer camps of Saving Iceland brought many foreign activists and anarchists to Iceland. It introduced direct action and consensus decision-making to the political grassroots here. This sowed seeds in the fertile ground of grassroots politics created by the financial crisis when the public became outraged at the banks and the government and wanted to do something about it.
Actions against parliament, government and the banks after the sudden crash in the fall of 2008 were very spontaneous and anarchistic in nature. There were open protest meetings and discussions both indoors and outdoors where anarchist presence was visible. The protests had no leaders. Calls for blockades of government meetings were anonymous so anyone interested showed up and dressed up black bloc style, with black hoodies and black clothes. Sometimes we were ten in an action harassing parliament members going to work, at other occasions we were a hundred or more making noise inside banks. January 2009 saw the big explosion of mass noise protests around the parliament and in the streets that eventually caused the government to resign. Anarchists were active there in many ways, whether it was distributing pamphlets, giving aid to those hurt by police pepper spray or being instigators of protests becoming more radical, like breaking through police lines so others would follow.
Not that everyone wearing a black mask would or could identify as an anarchist. But the word and the ideas went around, to the streets, into the media and into people’s minds. It was an amazing experience for the local anarchists, taking part in a gathering of a few thousand angry individuals and all of them being eager to snatch their pamphlets out of their hands and read them.
Was this interest only a short-term phenomenon or did it continue?
Iceland was a colony of Norway and then Denmark for 600 years. The history of democracy in Iceland started in 1945. That means that the idea of democracy as politics where the public takes active part has not yet become part of the culture. With a financial and political crisis on their hands the Icelanders were eager to learn about new ideas on how to run things and get organized. The change will be felt long-term.
What is the state of the crisis now?
The crisis has not been resolved and will not be in the coming years. The banks are still harassing people and causing poverty. New scandals of politicians being on the payroll of financiers pop up every week. It is chaotic and healthy and it is fertile ground even though most Icelanders probably want everything to go back to the world of shopping on easily available credit from the banks. But since the credit crisis will not be solved in any simple way, more people want to learn.
It seems the government answered with strong repression to the anarchist movement?
The government strikes back at those who are most active and now nine individuals, some of them anarchists, are facing serious charges for “attacking parliament” and “causing injury to parliament staff” after an action where a group of thirty entered parliament with the intention of voicing their opinion and telling parliament how useless they were. The trial is being ridiculed on many platforms and other protesters are signing a statement that if anyone is being prosecuted for “attacking parliament” than everyone included in the protests should be prosecuted.
You mentioned the importance of international connections. Are these ongoing?
We are connected internationally, foreign activists come visit and stay for a longer time and we learn from each other. Most of them are connected with eco-activism.
Can you outline the current anarchist scene, that is, people and projects who do use the term “anarchism” for their politics?
There is now a biannual Icelandic language anarchist magazine – "Svartur Svanur" - in its third issue. A montly magazine – "Róstur" – is written and run by a group of anarchists and leftists and sold in the streets. Andspyrna, a one person anarchist publishing and distro keeps busy. The Andspyrna anarchist library was started up a few years ago and has around 1000 titles. It is temporary closed as this is written since Hljómalind, the organic collective café, is looking for a new house. Food Not Bombs is in its second year in downtown Reykjavík.
This is a small movement and often it seems that all the work is being done by the same few dedicated individuals. But more people than before know what anarchism is, and understand that organizing without individuals at the top is not as risky as when trusting in democratic representatives and capitalism.
What are your hopes for the future?
If you look at revolution as a sum of thousands of small transformations, than we are a part of that revolution, locally and internationally.
Siggi Pönk runs Andspyrna, an anarchist publisher, distribution, and library in Reykjavik. Having been active in Iceland's music and political scene for many years, he has in recent years been mainly involved with the Saving Iceland campaign. He works as a nurse at a hospital's emergency ward.