Reykjavik Harbor, taken from the belfry of the tallest church.
The collapse of Iceland’s environment and its democracy in its early years forged cultural traits that persist even today, particularly a deep suspicion of allowing any one group to have too much wealth or too much power. And Iceland’s later history only reinforced these traits. During the seven hundred years when Iceland was ruled by foreigners, there were no rich people in Iceland—except the foreigners who had been sent there to rule them. The Icelanders themselves were all poor, and uniformly poor. If there was any one thing that could have increased the suspicion of wealth which Icelanders already held, it would have been such a situation. And throughout most of that period, Denmark held a monopoly on Icelandic trade, which impoverished the country further. By the twentieth century, resentment of “foreign exploiters” and resentment of “the wealthy” had become synonymous.
Another factor which I believe contributed to Icelanders’ willingness to accept redistributive policies was that during the “glory days” of the fishing industry, that industry in itself provided an opportunity for large numbers of blue collar workers to earn high incomes, and this evens out the wealth. At least, that certainly happened in my home town of Waterloo, Iowa. In the post war years, John Deere and Rath Pack both paid high wages, and this lifted the wage level of all other workers in the area. Not that everyone made as high a wage as Deere workers. The work in the Deere plant, especially the foundry, was strenuous, hot, dangerous work in foul air, and no one in his right mind would do it if he wasn’t paid significantly more than he could make elsewhere. Many quit the plant to take easier jobs—always at lower wages--but not radically lower wages. If you worked for a small local non-union business, every time you and your boss talked about wages, you knew, and your boss knew that you could always go back to Deere’s. So this situation had the effect of pulling up the bottom of the wage structure. But it also pulled down the top, since Waterloo’s only wealthy class then was comprised of the small business owners, who all made less income because they had to pay wages competing with Deere and Rath. In the 1960s, visitors to Waterloo often observed that Waterloo had no upper class—or lower class. Not everyone earned exactly the same wage, but they were nearly all in about the same class, or so it seemed to outsiders.
I suspect that fishing boat work was also horrible, strenuous, dangerous work, and people were paid high wages to do it. And this lifted the wages of shore-bound occupations as well. A political order that aims to even out opportunities and incomes would seem more reasonable to those who grew up in a place where fairly equal opportunities and incomes had been the norm.
Another factor that allowed Iceland’s bold social initiatives was its homogeneous population. In the United States and in England, conservatives in the twentieth century often won elections, not because the working people who voted for them had been persuaded that the conservative parties would advance their own economic interests, but rather, they voted their fears—fears created by “wedge politicians” who pandered to them. For a hundred years, conservative wedge politicians have divided White against Black, Protestant against Catholic, and so forth. I know several conservatives who are decent people, and who would be appalled at these tactics. But in the U.S., no conservative since Eisenhower has been elected to national office without at least some component of the vote owing to wedge politics—usually race baiting wedge politics. And in every case, the size of that component was greater than his margin of victory. I clearly remember blue collar Democrats who said they were voting for Reagan in 1980. They had been persuaded that a significant part of their tax money was supporting “black welfare queens.” It was utter nonsense. The entire Health and Human Services budget was a couple percent of the federal budget, and the majority of it went to run the prison system--and most recipients of any kind of welfare payments were white. I explained that in a whole year, the amount of their tax money actually spent on “black welfare queens” could not exceed ten bucks. Is it reasonable to elect a man who will bust every union he can and undermine your own wage scale to save ten bucks?
But elect him they did; and his first official act was to bust the Air Traffic Controllers’ union. He then appointed a bunch of anti-union zealots to the NLRB who ruled against every union petition without even reading it. And then he gave Volker the green light to throw the country into a depression. Within two years, our union voluntarily agreed to a 40% wage cut, (not that it mattered, since only 5 out of 300 of us still had jobs.) All this for ten bucks? It wasn’t the money; it was race—and Reagan and his handlers fully understood this. And when Thatcher was elected in England, part of the strategy involved a whispering campaign to convince working people that “If you vote for labor, you’ll have a person of colour for a neighbor.” (Only they phrased it less politely.) As I said, I know many conservatives, or at least moderates who often support conservatives, who would be appalled at this kind of tactic. But if you’ve ever given a dollar to any conservative running for national office, some of that dollar was used for this kind of strategy. And if it wasn’t, then they lost.
The problem for liberals is that any time we suggest even the simplest of government programs that would give any benefit to anyone, a conservative campaign, sometimes shouted, and sometimes whispered, spreads the message that: “If we have this program, then some of your tax money will be going to “them,” and we all know what treacherous, no good bastards “they” are.” Now, if you were Karl Rove and someone in Iceland hired you to devise a wedge campaign to split the working class vote there, who is the “them?” If you were trying to incite irrational fear of the “other,” who would that be? They all have the same race, nationality, language, history, and religion, ---and mostly the same genes. So who is “they?”And finally, Iceland, like all European countries, has a constitution which provides a true democracy, with “one man, one vote.” We do not. Have you ever noticed that in the U.S. Senate, South Dakota gets as many senate seats as New York? If you don’t understand how this makes a difference, simply look at all liberal programs since the beginning of the republic which passed the U.S. House-- but not the Senate. To sum up, Iceland has a unique geology, ecology, economy, and history. They have a homogeneous population. And they have a democracy.