Jan 07 2008

‘Concerning the Fundamental Values of Society’ by Miriam Rose

A talk which opened a panel discussion at the ‘Reykjavikur Akademia’ with the topic ‘What are the Fundamental Values of Society’ 20 November 2007. Panelists included Reykjavik Chief of Police Stefán Eiríksson, historian and Left Green MP Guðfríður Lilja Grétarsdóttir and philosopher Viðar Thorsteinsson.

For those of you who don’t already know me, my name is Miriam Rose, and I am an activist and environmental scientist from the UK. I have been asked to speak today on my experience of the basic values of Icelandic society, based on an interview I did on Kastljos in October, after I was threatened with deportation from Iceland for my part in actions against the heavy industry policy of your government. The letter of requested deportation which I received explained that I may be expelled from Iceland for a minimum of three years as my behavior constitutes a ‘threat to the fundamental values of society’.

In the interview I noted how telling I thought this choice of words, and raised the question: What are the fundamental values of Icelandic society? It seems that free speech, equal rights and the right to protest are not amongst them, so what does this sentence say? To me it revealed a very simple truth about the nature of the decision. I had questioned the right of market and economic values to dominate society and nature, through the policy of heavy industrialisation. In this accusation it was made painfully clear that these are the ‘fundamental values’ of today’s Icelandic society even at the expense of human freedoms, and those who question such values are not welcome here. I will go on to explore this hypothesis tonight.

Iceland is a country with a proud history and belief in strong democracy and human rights. It is certainly perceived from the outside as a country with a representative and refined democratic system, and peaceful and humanist values. But what are these basic values we are so proud of maintaining in such a developed society? There are two essential building blocks of commonly percieved fundamental values of society- the fundamental human rights and the basic democratic values. I will go on to examine some of these values in detail, in relation to their applications in modern Icelandic society.

Developed democracies claim to value above all the basic human rights; free speech, equal rights, freedom of movement etc. Rights that were defined by hundreds of years of social struggle against repressive regimes, for equality and freedom, and are now enshrined into UN conventions and government constitutions to put our minds at rest.

So let us start with equal rights, perhaps the most fundamental of these values, assumed by all and part of our everyday rhetoric on the advantages of western democracy. But how are our equal rights monitored and enforced? Well, if we feel we have been treated unequally our first stop is the law courts, designed to check the application of such rights and deliver justice. It is well known that our ability to be represented in the courts requires and depends on money; good lawyers, payment of court fees, time off work etc. So this system is fundamentally flawed and unequal.

Secondly it is the duty of governments and companies to practice and ensure equal rights in their policies and actions. But will they really do this at the expense of enormous profit margins? Big corporations and state economies operate by using cheap labour and products from countries with dubious human rights to give their customers cheap ‘value-added’ goods. Value in this sense means only the size of the dent in the purse, not the rights of those whose slave labour creates it.

To confuse the matter of equal rights further, the use of human rights terminology must also be monitored, as its original purpose is misused and mistreated in the court room. The European Court of Human Rights has in several cases awarded corporations the human rights of individuals. The idea is that by acting against a corporation, you are acting against its shareholders and their fundamental human rights. (ie by blockading a MacDonalds truck you restrict the freedom of movement of its shareholders). Even these conventions now serve to protect the rights of big business and capital growth, and do not represent the voiceless majority as they were intended.

In Iceland there is considerable evidence of terrible mistreatment of foreign workers at Karahnjukar dams. Illegal workers brought by construction company Impregilo had almost no rights in Icelandic society, and reports of deaths at the work site are accused of being grossly underestimated. They received no justice or equality here. The Icelandic state ignored this ill-treatment in favour of the profits promised by powerful companies like ALCOA, (and perhaps also in fear of speaking against corporations with such highflying connections).

Personally I have experienced considerable inequality in my treatment here. This summer i was sent directly to prison after being notified of a fine for disobeying the police. In contrast to the norm I was given no time to pay the amount and no right to appeal in the courts, and was sent immediately to prison where I was kept in isolation for 8 days, as there was not space in the womens prison for me. While inside I was told by the prison guards that this was very unusual as most women are pardoned a few times before being imprisoned in Iceland, hence the small number of female prisoners. They were quite surprised that a woman convicted of her first and non-violent crime would be treated this way. It seems that this unfair treatment was intentionally harsh as a warning to other protesters that they were not wanted by the state.

Let us move on to free speech. Unlike the controlled media of dictatorships and communist regimes, we pride ourselves on the free and unbiased press of the Western world. But how impartial is it really? Icelandic media is controlled by a few private groups and a small state run element, which accepts private finance. What are their interests? Can company owned and sponsored media really criticise its own, or associated companies, or report fairly on their economic abuses? In whose interest was it that lies about the payment of Saving Iceland activists were published by RÚV and never revoked despite complaints made through all the official channels?

I will use the pertinent form of questioning taken by tribal rights activists in India, whom I have worked with and ask:
Free speech for whom? At what cost?

Thirdly, and in strong relation to my experience, what of freedom of assembly or the right to demonstrate? When our ability to express ourselves through the democratic system or the free media fails, this is an essential human right to test our democracy and the existence of our perceived fundamental human rights and values. On this subject i will read from an essay by booker prize winning Indian author Arundhati Roy:

“The only way to make democracy real is to begin a process of constant questioning, permanent provocation, and continuous public conversation between citizens and the State. That conversation is quite different from the conversation between political parties. (Representing the views of rival political parties is what the mass media thinks of as ‘balanced’ reporting.)

It is important to remember that our freedoms such as they are, were never given to us by any government, they have been wrested from them by us. If we do not use them, if we do not test them from time to time, they atrophy. If we do not guard them constantly, they will be taken away from us. If we do not demand more and more, we will be left with less and less.” (Roy, 2005)

In several instances the Icelandic State has shown its intolerance to the right of freedom of assembly, and to methods of civil disobedience as a form of protest. (Despite huge admiration for the use of these methods in defining our civil rights and freedoms). In 2002 any person suspected of being a member of the Falun Gong (a strictly pacifist human rights movement), were arrested or denied entry into Iceland at the request of a corrupt and internationally frowned upon government. (China.)

As a personal anecdote, I often use an example from my treatment here last summer. After being arrested and taken to Eskifjorður police station after a protest action, I found myself very thirsty while held in one of the small hot cells. When I knocked on the door to ask for a glass of water (my constitutional right) I was told, “You lost your rights when you broke the law!” and denied the water. This incident highlights to me the mentality of absolute lack of acceptance of the validity of this form of protest, and the lack of respect of human rights by those who�s job it is to protect them. (The police.)

We suffer from an obsession with the ‘sacred’ nature of the law, which denies us the right to challenge laws, ask who they are there to protect, and allow society to change and grow as it has historically by the use of these methods.

Having examined some of the main human rights let us now turn to the fundamental values and building blocks of democracy, the pride of Iceland�s history as the first truly democratic nation. Democracy is based on; participation (of people in the system), representation (of the people by politicians) and accountability (of decisions taken to the people). By examining these elements I will present the idea that real democracy has been replaced by an ‘illusion of democracy’, manufactured by PR experts and spin-doctors who now hold such an important place in the workings of our governments. In fact many western governments (including Iceland) rely on this illusion to maintain a fairly silent and disinterested population, who don’t question a so-called democratic system which benefits big business and capital growth at the expense of all else (the environment, civil liberties etc).The use of rhetoric has confused the ‘free-market’ with the freedom of the people, suggesting that an open economic environment means an open society, and disguising the loss of civil liberties and democracy that march hand in hand with such unchecked and unquestioned capital growth.

First let us examine participation. In this the democratic systems we use are fundamentally flawed. In the 2003 Icelandic elections 33.7% voted Independence party, 31% voted for the Alliance (social democrats), and 17% voted Progressive. In the following coalition, not only did just 34% vote for the winning party, but a party with only 17% support achieved huge shared power in government. This was the coalition who went on to repeatedly deny requests for an open vote on Kárahnjukarvirkjun.

Secondly we may examine representation and accountability. Once elected it seems that ministers have a clean bill to do what they (and their interest groups) want without any accountability to, or representation of the people who put them there. In 2003 Prime Minister David Oddsson and Foreign Secretary Halldor Ásgrimsson, allied Iceland to the war in Iraq without the consultation of the people or even the government. This decision was vastly against public opinion. It was not representative and against the parliamentary rules and the constitution, which state that such issues must go through the foreign affairs commitee (which it did not). The Penal Code states that anyone who challenges the fairness of the Icelandic state as defined in the constitution is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Were they tried on this crime? No. Representation and accountability failed here as in so many cases.

Again, when the legal system and democracy has failed to hold the government accountable, protest is the only avenue for justice. In 2006 fifteen thousand people marched in towns and cities around Iceland in protest of the drowning of Kárahnjukar, to no effect. It is no wonder that people feel powerless with these methods of protest, and turn to direct action and civil disobedience to challenge decisions made in their name.

Some would even say that corporations have more power than people and even politicians in Iceland. Since we have seen the connection between money and power, it is clear that enormous monopolies like ALCOA, Baugur group, RioTinto and the KolKrabbin hold much. And how are they held accountable? DECODE, the owner of almost all Icelandic human DNA are selling off their information to other companies at 60,000 Kr a piece, with no public permission. Meanwhile ALCOA receives energy for many times less than the Icelandic public, an amount so small that Landsvirkjun will not even disclose it.

Again we ask: Representation for whom? At what cost? Democracy for whom? At what cost?

Modern Western democracies (such as Iceland and the UK) rely on a silent and disillusioned population, allowing the passing of controversial policies without check, as we are fooled by the rhetoric of democracy and freedom. Unlike under a harsh dictatorship or tough communism, we are too wealthy and content to question the system that creates our wealth.

On the issue of authority and acceptance, I always find the famous psychological test by Stanley Milgram very interesting. In this experiment a member of the public is asked to participate in a contrived experiment in which they must read out a list of questions to a second participant (actually an actor) sitting in the next room. When the answerer gets the questions wrong, they must give them an electric shock, the dose of which will increase with each wrong answer until it reaches a red (very dangerous) zone on the machine. The participant can hear the screams of the answerer getting louder and more horrific with each dose. In most experiments the participant complied to a very worrying level of electric dosage and did not question the authority of the white-coated, clipboard holding scientist directing the test. Milgram concluded that the perceived authority of the scientist removed the personal values of the participant to some extent.

He went on to examine how compliance changed with variations to certain aspects of the experiment. He found that compliance dropped dramatically when: a) the scientist did not wear a labcoat or hold a clipboard, b) A third party actor playing another member of the public entered and questioned the validity of the experiment. When related to democracy and societal values, the first instance shows the importance of perceived legitimacy in authority figures, and the need for the PR man to ensure the image keeps the people silent and satisfied. The second element I find most interesting as it shows the huge destabilising force of the dissenting public voice to the illusion of democracy. It only takes one other voice of concern to unmask the powers that be and lead to rejection of the system and re-establishment of personal values. No wonder governments try so hard to quash protest against their contentious policies.

Finally, when asking Icelanders what they consider the basic values of their society, the issue of Independence came up time and time again. It seems that if liberty is the fundamental value of the USA, Independence is that of Iceland. Icelanders are respected worldwide for their rejection of a national army, of the EU, of the globalisation of fishing rights. There is a real, and admirable feeling of the need to be self sufficient as an island state here, even at the cost of expensive fat-cat friendships in Europe and beyond.

Despite this, there is great willingness of the Icelandic nation to accept neo-colonisation of the economy by very few Aluminium corporations, who rip off energy at a fraction of the public cost, burdening the taxpayer and creating economic reliance on so few foreign companies. (ALCOA admitted in a meeting in Brazil that they are paying less than half for Icelandic power, as they will pay for big dam electricity there.) Yet, when foreign activists join Icelanders in opposing this sellout they are shunned and told, ‘it is not your business’.

So it seems that the freemarket, the economy and Iceland’s role in corporate globalisation are the key values of today’s Icelandic society. So we ask once more: Globalisation for whom? At what cost?

Does globalisation mean international free movement of people?
No, not in the case of the Falun Gong, or saving iceland activists repeatedly threatened with deportation.

Does it mean equal respect for all human lives?
Not in the case of the secretive treatment of workers at Karahnjukarvirkjun.

Does it mean meaningful international treatise on climate change, racial discrimination or nuclear weapons?
No, again it doesn’t. Geir H. Harde is even currently trying to weedle his way out of Iceland’s already excessive Kyoto allowances.

And, if these are the values of Iceland, are they really the values of the Icelandic people? Or just those of the powerful few at the head of the decision making process? And if they are not the people’s values, how will the people object to them? How will they regain and redefine the real fundamental values of society? That is the question which faces Iceland and most states today. In a climate where the market God has become almost unquestioned as the basis of our life and values, we must decide whether it is really ok to take the blue pill and settle into the cushioned comfort of the illusion, or gulp the red pill, open our eyes, and set ourselves to unmasking the powers that we must once again wrest our values from.


Roy, Arundhati, 2005. ‘An ordinary persons guide to empire’. Penguin Books, India.

Miriam Rose is also co-author of:

Aluminium Tyrants (The Ecologist)

Relevant stories:

The Directorate of Immigration Refuse to Deport Miriam Rose

London Protest Against Iceland’s Deportation of Environmental Activists

Stop Iceland’s Persecution of Environmental Activists – London Demo 2 October

Saving Iceland Activists Threatened with Deportation

UK Greens Urge Icelandic Government to Stop Persecution of SI Activists

UK Greens Back British Environmental Activist Imprisoned in Iceland

‘Surprise, surprise!’