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The Icelandic Volcano Erupts: A New Era of People Power in the Streets?

Can a hedge-fund island lose its shirt and gain its soul?

In December, reports surfaced that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson pushed his Wall Street bailout package by suggesting that, without it, civil unrest in the United States might grow so dangerous that martial law would have to be declared. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), warned of the same risk of riots, wherever the global economy was hurting. What really worried them wasn't, I suspect, the possibility of a lot of people thronging the streets with demands for social and political change, but that some of those demands might actually be achieved. Take the example of Iceland, the first -- but surely not the last -- country to go bankrupt in the current global crash.

While the United States was inaugurating its first African-American president, Icelanders were besieging their parliament. Youtube video of the scene -- drummers pounding out a tribal beat, the flare and boom of teargas canisters, scores of helmeted police behind transparent plastic shields, a bonfire in front of the stone building that resembles a country house more than a seat of government -- was dramatic, particularly the figures silhouetted against a blaze whose hot light flickered on the gray walls during much of the eighteen-hour-long midwinter night. People beat pots and pans in what was dubbed the Saucepan Revolution. Five days later, the government, dominated by the neoliberal Independent Party, collapsed, as many Icelanders had hoped and demanded it would since the country's economy suddenly melted down in October.

The interim government, built from a coalition of the Left-Green Party and the Social Democrats, is at least as different from the old one as the Obama administration is from the Bush administration. The latest prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir, broke new ground in the midst of the crisis: she is now the world's first out lesbian head of state. In power only until elections on April 25th, this caretaker government takes on the formidable task of stabilizing and steering a country that has the dubious honor of being the first to drop in the current global meltdown. Last week, Sigurdardóttir said that the new government would try to change the constitution to "enshrine national ownership of the country's natural resources" and to "open a new chapter in public participation in shaping the structure of government," a 180-degree turn from the neoliberal policies of Iceland's fallen masters.

Iceland is now a country whose currency, the króna, has collapsed, whose debt incurred by banks deregulated in the mid-1990s is 10 times larger than the country's gross domestic product, and whose people have lost most of their savings and face debts and mortgages that can't be paid off. Meanwhile, inflation and unemployment are skyrocketing, and potential solutions to the crisis only pose new problems.

The present government may differ from the old, but not as much as the Icelandic people differ from their pre-October selves. They are now furious and engaged, where they were once acquiescent and uninvolved.

Before the crash, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the figurehead president of Iceland, liked to compare his tiny society -- the island nation has 320,000 people -- to Athens. One of my Icelandic friends jokes darkly that, yes, it's Athens, but not in the age of Socrates and Sophicles; it's Athens now in the age of anti-governmental insurrection. The Iceland of last summer -- I was there for nearly three months -- seemed socially poor but materially rich; the Iceland I read and hear about now seems to be socially rich at last, but terrifying poor materially.

Iceland is a harsh, beautiful rock dangling like a jewel on a pendant from the Arctic Circle. Bereft of mineral resources, too far north for much in the way of agriculture, it had some fish, some sheep, and of late some geothermal and hydropower energy and a few small industries, along with a highly literate human population whose fierceness was apparently only temporarily dormant during the brief era of borrowing to spend. The people I've talked to since are exultant to have reclaimed their country and a little terrified about the stark poverty facing them.

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