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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?

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In mid-December 2001, the Argentinean economy collapsed. In its day, Argentina had been the poster child for neoliberalism, with its privatized economy guided by International Monetary Fund policy. The economy's managers, foreign and domestic, were proud of what they'd done, until it turned out that it didn't work. Then, the government tried to freeze its citizens' bank accounts to keep them from turning their plummeting pesos into foreign currency and breaking the banks.

The poor had already been politically engaged, and the unions had called a one-day general strike (just as French unions last week called more than one million people into the streets to protest job losses in the latest economic crisis). When the banks were frozen, however, middle-class Argentineans woke up broke -- and angry.

On December 19th, 20th and 21st of 2001, they took to the streets of Buenos Aires in record numbers, banging pots and pans and shouting "all of them out." In the next few weeks, they forced a series of governments to collapse. For many people, those insurrectionary days were not just a revolt against the disaster that unfettered capitalism had brought them, but the time when they recovered from the years of silence and withdrawal imposed on the country in the 1980s by a military dictatorship via terror and torture.

After the crash of 2001, Argentineans found their voice, found each other, found a new sense of power and possibility, and began to engage in political experiments so new they required a new vocabulary. One of the most important of these experiments would be neighborhood assemblies throughout Buenos Aires, which provided for some of the practical needs of a now-cashless community, and also became lively forums where strangers became compañeros.

Such incandescent moments when people find their voices and power as part of civil society are epiphanies, not solutions, but Argentina was never the same country again, even after its economy recovered. Like much of the rest of Latin America in this decade, it swung left in its political leadership, but far more important, Argentineans developed social alternatives and found a new boldness that had previously been lacking. Some of what arose from the crisis, including workplaces taken over by workers and run as collectives, still exists.

Argentina is big in land, resources, and population with a very different culture and history than Iceland. Where Iceland goes from here is hard to foresee. But as Icelandic writer Haukar Már Helgason put it in the London Review of Books last November:


"There is an enormous sense of relief. After a claustrophobic decade, anger and resentment are possible again. It's official: capitalism is monstrous. Try talking about the benefits of free markets and you will be treated like someone promoting the benefits of rape. Honest resentment opens a space for the hope that one day language might regain some of its critical capacity, that it could even begin to describe social realities again."

The big question may be whether the rest of us, in our own potential Argentinas and Icelands, picking up the check for decades of recklessness by the captains of industry, will be resentful enough and hopeful enough to say that unfettered capitalism has been monstrous, not just when it failed, but when it succeeded. Let's hope that we're imaginative enough to concoct real alternatives. Iceland has no choice but to lead the way.

Rebecca Solnit is a contributing editor to Harper's Magazine and a regular. Her book on disaster and civil society, A Paradise Built in Hell, will be out later this year.

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