Last May Day, I joined the planning committee of a freshly founded Socialist Party in Iceland. Being more anarchist than socialist, but very disillusioned with anarchism’s lack of progress, this was a great opportunity to practice actually existing politics. After a summer of work, we are beginning to reap the fruits of our labors.
First, a rough background. Iceland is going through a tourism-fueled boom, which has led to some wage growth but also massive inflation in house prices, so there’s discontent among people whose wages rise slower than the rent, especially those with fixed incomes — pensioners and people subsisting on benefits. Corruption is rife. The family of the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister (yes, they’re related) owns much of the tourist economy. The “alternative” parties promising New And Better Politics have succumbed to the most stunning and precipitous loss of credibility by joining government and not changing anything. Most people expect a crash when tourists realize that Iceland isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Blairism has eaten the leftist parties whole, and even though inequality is rising, the Pirate Party is having difficulty sticking to a redistributionist platform. Enter a disgruntled and radicalized newspaper editor, pissed off that everybody knows stuff’s broken but nobody’s fixing it.
Calling together a group of about eight radical left-wingers, activists and anti-poverty advocates, he founded the Socialist Party of Iceland (second edition) on May Day this year. At its inception, roughly one in every 200 Icelanders joined. (Calm down, it’s only around 1400 people.) With meager funds, a small planning committee, a concise manifesto and nothing to lose but our innocence, we plunged ahead.
We decided early on that policy would be made by regular party members, chosen at random. With the help of a furiously effective programmer, a digital mechanism for it was in place at the end of July. Four policy groups were set up; Housing, Common funds, Health, Democratization. Each was allocated thirty members, and we started calling them. “Shouldn’t take more than a day or two,” we thought. Oh, the folly of one’s youth.
After not one day, not two days, but seven days of maniacal phone calling, emailing, SMSing, Facebook messaging and everything short of walking to the front doors of our members’ homes, we managed to reach and get an “I’ll be there” from 120 people. (Knowing Icelandic manners and customs, we knew that many probably wouldn’t show up.) We invited them to a series of meetings. In the first one they’d come up with their respective “policy utopias” — a broad-strokes version of what their policy should aim at –, in the second one they’d talk with experts and people with experience of the policy area, and in the third one an analysis and a plan would be hammered out.
In short, we’d provide a meeting hall, soup, facilitators, experts, paper and pencils. They’d create the policy.
Today, we took the first step. Vision outlines, the four “utopias”, were written by the four groups. Next up are meetings with experts. In mid-September, our policy drafts should be ready.
We are painfully aware that we are experimenting as we go along, and that three rounds of meetings are a very short time for policy groups to come up with a detailed platform. The idea is to create a structure that’s robustly democratic, rather than immediate results. Anyway, after the meeting today, there’s good reason to think the platform will be excellent anyway. Turns out, when you give random strangers soup, a meeting hall, and a policy document to write, they come up with thoughtful and impassioned ideas. They have a world to win.