Sunday, February 8, 2009

Investigation, Impeachment, Prosecution, War Crimes, Economic Collapse, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine Make For A Full Menu

Investigation, Impeachment, Prosecution, War Crimes, Economic Collapse, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine Make For A Full Menu; We Must Be Equal To The Challenges!



It has been a very sad afternoon as I have been informed of the closing of seventeen (17) Impeachment Advocacy Groups, Google and Yahoo, with which I have been associated.  The fight is far from over and the Gate to the walkway to the Hague is just opening. The pursuit of the former administration for their crimes against humanity is not a matter for one to simply throw in the towel and wave the white flag of surrender.  To do so is to legitimize the right of our government to kill at will for whatever cause.  It positions this nation as rouge international Anarchist state.  


The issues rising up in the economic collapse of the world, the looming potentially disastrous embarkation on a new Afghanistan adventure cannot be viewed either in isolation or of more importance.  Certainly we are not single issues folks!


"The action I am taking is no more than a radical measure to hasten the explosion of truth and justice. I have but one passion: to enlighten those who have been kept in the dark, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness. My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul. Let them dare, then,
to bring me before a court of law and let the enquiry take place in
broad daylight!"

- Emile Zola, J'accuse! (1898) –

“If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude
than the animating contest of freedom, — go from us in peace. We ask
not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed
you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and
may posterity forget
that ye were our countrymen!”

-Sam Adams-



Extend Statute of Limitations Action Page:


Abandoning Torture But What About War?
By David Swanson


If we can move beyond torture, do we not have a responsibility also to think for a moment about the obvious fact that torture is not the cruelest thing we do?  Torture offends us, in part, because the torturer is not at risk, but neither are most pilots dropping bombs.  And how exactly does the risk taken by ground troops mitigate the suffering of those they wound, kill, and terrorize?  Hanging someone by the wrists offends us, and yet we might rather have it done to us than be kept in 23-hours-a-day isolation for a decade, a practice that is part of our accepted justice system.  Clearly our morality is a scrambled hodge-podge of reactions that could use some improvement.


One book I find helpful in this is "Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror, and Sovereignty," by Paul Kahn, an exploration of how those who support torture and war tend to think.  In Kahn's interpretation, many modern westerners make exceptions to the rule of law for the rule of sovereignty, or nationalism.  We place in the flag and the body politic (not to mention the imperial president) a sacred importance once given to royalty, and we treat terrorism as an act of war rather than a crime because it is an affront to our nation.  We give ultimate value to the military act of sacrificing one's life in order to take the lives of those who fail to worship at the god of the Stars and Stripes.  War, as the title of Chris Hedge's terrific book puts it, is a force that gives us meaning…..


Daniel R.: Taking Back America (ACLU MA Conference 2009)
Wes: Washington office thought impeachment had 0 chance. Needed resources elsewhere. Needed process to include forum to talk about abuses. Making impeachment as the goal instead of as part of the process. ...
Daniel R. -


A Response to Dick Cheney’s Politico Interview « A Time for Change
By Catherine 
By now I am sure that you have heard that our former Vice President, Dick Cheney, gave another interview to Politico wherein he attempted to paint the Bush administration in the light of the saviors of America. We should, after all, ...
A Time for Change -



Two years of recession, or ten years of hell?

February 8, 2009:

Two years recession, or ten years of hell? Pt.3

Engdahl: The danger is the US may turn to military might as their financial power weakens  February 8, 2009

Two years recession, or ten years of hell? Pt.2

F. William Engdahl: We are heading for a time of great social movements like the 1930's  February 7, 2009

Two years recession, or ten years of hell?

F William Engdahl: US economy has been hollowed out over the last 15 years and debt load is staggering  February 6, 2009


Chomsky on oil & Israel lobby
Pakistan Observer - Islamabad,ISB,Pakistan
(1) Domestic politics, in an election year, was the
 primary force behind President Truman’s decision to support the creation of Israel. ...See all stories on this topic


Dear Impeachment/Indictment/Accountability Activists,

I would like to call on this network of wonderful fellow activists for a favor.  Some of you may know I have been active on the issue of the war in Afghanistan, namely through my advocacy with Jobs for Afghans.  I and my Afghan colleague are convinced that only a shift toward a policy emphasizing jobs and development will avert the looming tragedy in Afghanistan, which now threatens to become a quagmire in which many more soldiers and civilians die, with no end in sight.  Jobs for Afghans has detailed policy proposals and op-eds ready to publish, and I am looking for volunteers to forward:

- an op-ed to a few of your local papers, emailed under the subject line "Op-ed submission, please publish this op-ed."  Papers interested will contact you and can contact me for verification.

- forward your own or the following pre-composed letter to your congressmember

- forward the letter to the Obama administration

American policy toward Afghanistan is in a very fluid state.  Obama seems to be open to a "softer" approach, but the military-industrial complex wants to head that off and go the way of escalation, more and more troops, and ultimately the same approach which makes us hated around the world.  The right push now could tilt Obama toward the approach which could shorten this war and allow US troops to come home.  Below is the cut-and-paste op-ed to be submitted to newspapers, and a pre-composed letter to congress and Obama, which you can tailor to your liking.  Thanks if you can help.  :


Contact form to email the president:


Dear Congress member,

As the war in Afghanistan escalates and reaches crisis proportions, I would like to ask you as a constituent to work for the only approach which can win, that which emphasizes jobs and economic development for ordinary Afghans rather than merely more troops.  Obama State Department spokesman Robert Wood said last month: "There is no purely military solution to the challenge in Afghanistan so there will be a significant non-military component to anything that we seek to undertake." 

Jobs for Afghans, a non-profit advocacy group, has researched this issue thoroughly and has proposed specific policies and legislation which I would like you to study and take active steps to translate into action, either by urging President Obama to implement by executive order or by enacting legislation through the US Congress.  The agency through which most development assistance flows to Afghanistan is USAID, which is under the executive branch and thus subject to both executive order and to changes in its enabling legislation.  US taxpayers are already spending billions of dollars in reconstruction aid to Afghanistan, but it has failed to stem the economic misery of the ordinary Afghan, and has mostly benefited and enriched the contracting corporations.  Unemployment in Afghanistan is forty-percent, children are literally starving, and, amazingly, the only employer definitely hiring and paying a decent wage is the Taliban.  This is insanity.  

Please read the op-ed below, submitted to various American newspapers, as it summarizes the nature of the problem.  Then please circulate the following proposed legislation to your colleagues, especially those in the appropriate committees.  USAID budget and operations are determined by the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations of the Committee on Appropriations, chairman Senator Mitch McConnell, and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, chairman Rep. Howard Berman.

The centerpiece of this effort is utilizing US tax dollars already being spent in Afghanistan to generate one million new jobs, so that young men are not forced to join the insurgency in order to feed their families, as they are now.   As a nation with a population of about 30 million, 8 million in the workforce, this would make a significant impact.  Colonel Tom Collins, Pentagon spokesman for US forces, said: "There is a low percentage of the total Taliban force who we would call ideologically driven. We refer to them as Tier 1 people who believe their ideology, that what they're doing is right. The vast majority of Taliban fighters are essentially economically disadvantaged young men."

General Eikenberry, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, said before congress in 2007: "Much of the enemy force is drawn from the ranks of unemployed men looking for wages to support their famililies."  I urge you to believe these commanders-on-the-ground.  These are military men who understand the situation.

US soldiers are counting on the congress and the president to do their jobs as well as the soldiers are trying to theirs, against enormous odds and amid mounting civilian and US casualties.  In the near future I will request a report on what action steps you have taken on correcting the US course in Afghanistan.  Thank you and many kind regards.



Insert in the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, enabling and governing legislation for USAID,  Title 22, Chapter 82, subchapter I § 7516, new section "g":

 1) Requests for proposals from vendors bidding for contracts from USAID shall require a job-creation component, in which contractors shall describe the number of jobs for Afghan nationals will be created by the project, plans for the substitution of labor for capital equipment whenever feasible, and plans for the maximization of capacity-building in skills for Afghan nationals.  In bid submissions such components shall be weighted at 20 percent of points for awarding contract.  Bid evaluation of pricing shall be exclusive of the additional costs of job-development components, so that aggressive job-creation components are not penalized.  

  2)  Subcontractors to the principle contractor shall not be exempt from job-creation requirements, and shall report any data required to the office of the Inspector General of USAID.

   3)  Overhead for the subcontracting of work to further subcontractors shall not exceed five-percent.

  4)  USAID shall prioritize rural road, water, electricity, irrigation, and medical clinic projects, at the provincial and district level, in coordination with the development plans of the appropriate Afghan government ministry.  

  5)  USAID shall set a target of the one million new jobs by June 2009, which can be performed by unskilled labor from Afghan nationals, and shall coordinate bids for work in a manner consistent with the achievement of this goal.



Afghanistan: The War That Should Have Been Over

By Ralph Lopez

Imagine that, after World War II, instead of investing in the Marshall Plan in Europe, we allowed the region slide into decay.  It is 1953, eight years after the end of the war, and unemployment across Europe is 40%.  There are reports of literal starvation in the countryside.  There are pockets of prosperity -- the more fortunate are getting televisions and cars -- but the vast majority of the population lives in various stages of misery.  Now imagine extreme political factions -- in those days it would have been communists -- making inroads, because they will pay a small but living wage to new fighters who join, plus help with food and medicine.  There is no work.  This is the employer of last resort.  This is exactly what is happening in Afghanistan. 


In a country where yearly reconstruction assistance has amounted, in adjusted dollars, to $60 per person versus the $600 per person we spent on the Marshall Plan, 40% of the workforce is unemployed and has no means to support a family.  The well-financed Taliban pays $8 a day to its fighters, a good wage in this context, and is always hiring.  Go figure why the insurgency is growing.   Worse yet, the policy of the new American administration is leaning towards the solution which carries the most risk: more troops.  More troops means more resentment of the American presence.  Probably resulting in fighting which means more civilian casualties.  

As always we are focusing on the "pointy" end of foreign policy.  When we are roundly hated rather than warily tolerated, as we still are, we will wonder what went wrong.  One of the big talking points among the theories of what went wrong in Afghanistan is the problem of government corruption.  This is a problem, but the much bigger problem is the kind of corruption which is officially sanctioned.  Out of the relatively measly $60 per capita spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan, roughly 40% goes straight back out of the country in the form of profits for foreign contractors, according to a recent Oxfam report.  

Need a school?  Hire a foreign construction firm to design it, import materials to build it, rather than scout around for what's local, and import leased heavy equipment to do the digging and clearing, rather than give lots of shovels and picks to men who would do just about anything for $10 a day.  It's like giving a man in the desert a thimble of water and taking half of it back.

The gravest misconception in American thinking on Afghanistan is that it is driven by ideology, not economics.  Iraqi insurgents have been trying to eject what is perceived as an unprovoked foreign invasion, which gives that insurgency an ideological sheen.  In contrast, the Americans, at first, were as welcome in Afghanistan as they were unwelcome in Iraq.  The country was relatively stable until a year ago, when the people got tired of waiting for help which never arrived, and the Taliban took full advantage of it.

Unlike Saddam, who had a natural constituency in his Sunni and tribal base, the Taliban has its mysterious roots in the madarsas of Northern Pakistan, and has little popular support saves its ability to force obedience. This was related to me by an Afghan colleague who said how, "if there was a ten dollar bill laying on a street corner, you could come back days later and that ten dollars would still be there."  Why?  Because if you were accused of stealing it, they would cut off your hand.  The Taliban insurgency is growing as a result of economic conditions, not ideological ones.  Most Afghans hate the Taliban, but they need to feed their families.

Top British official Captain Leo Docherty has called Afghanistan "a textbook case of how to screw up a counterinsurgency."  None other than the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General Karl Eikenberry, told Congress in 2007 that: "Much of the enemy force is drawn from the ranks of unemployed men looking for wages to support their families."  Read that again.  This is Karl Eikenberry.  General Karl Eikenberry.  Even our top military man in Afghanistan was saying we are focusing too much on the military side of the equation.

In a report from Helmund Province a young man told a reporter that it was either the Taliban or watch his family starve.  "I couldn't find a job anywhere," said 19-year-old Jaan Agha.  "So I had to join the Taliban. They give me money for my family expenditures. If I left the Taliban, what else could I do?"  Herein lies the problem and the promise for the Obama administration.  They'll keep joining the Taliban, unless we give them something else to do.

Ralph Lopez is the founder of Jobs for Afghans.


Per capita assistance amounts:

Forty percent unemployment:

Taliban pays $8 per day:

Reconstruction assistance recycled back out of the country, 40 percent profits:
ACBAR Report, "Aid Effectiveness in Afghanistan”

Captain Docherty quote:
"Military policy in Afghanistan 'barking mad'"

General Karl Eikenberry Congressional Testimony 2007

Jaan Agha quote:
IWPR: "Few Choices for Helmand's Troubled Youth"

Other Background Sources:

Bloomberg: "Obama's Afghan War Plans May Run Into Weary Public, Deficits";_ylt=AtaLyuu3W6D3xyB0StQXutOs0NUE

Food shortages cause grass eating, displacement

Jobs for Afghans outline of legislation:

"Job creation should be top of Canada's Afghan strategy: Kandahar leaders," Canadian Press, May 2008

Afghanistan Study Group Final Report,

Starvation, Kandahar Province (YouTube)

America’s Long, Long Afghan War


–Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own–

Twenty years ago this month, the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan after a disastrous war that lasted nine years, seven weeks and three days. Barring military and political miracles, the United States will stay longer in Afghanistan than the Soviets did. Considerably longer.


Present U.S. plans to reinforce troops fighting a war that is, by most accounts, going badly, provide for up to 30,000 additional soldiers to be deployed over the next 12 to 18 months. By that time, the U.S. presence will almost have matched the Soviets’ stay and will exceed it by the end of 2010.


And if U.S. history is any guide, politicians running for the 2012 presidential election will describe the Afghan war as Barack Obama’s war because he switched emphasis and carried out a campaign pledge to draw down troops in Iraq and bolster U.S. forces in Afghanistan, now 36,000 strong.


Obama critics will complain about the Afghan war’s cost — probably around $70 billion a year — and demand an accounting on what it has achieved and when it will end. So far, nobody is venturing forecasts beyond “it will be long.”


General David Petraeus, the man credited with turning the tide of the war in Iraq, has spoken of Afghanistan as “the longest campaign of the long war.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates predicts “a long and difficult fight.”


You Try to Live on 500K in This Town  (Just Mail Me The Check And I’ll Report Back On How I Did! (Ed.))




Tomgram: Rebecca Solnit, A New Era of People Power in the Streets?


Of all places, it was Iceland that went bust first. It happened so rapidly -- the island's staggeringly indebted banks collapsed, as did the country's currency, in little more than a single week. If you weren't one of Iceland's many inhabitants who suddenly found themselves desperately impoverished, it seemed like a perfect metaphor for our dystopian planetary moment and, as the economic meltdown continues, it's being used just that way.


As other countries -- Ireland, Greece, Italy, Spain, Great Britain -- begin to queue up to experience some version of Iceland's fate, that nation or its stand-in capital, Reykjavik, has gained something like logo status. It's already the Xerox or Swoosh of modern disasters, which means, without thinking twice, the German magazine Der Spiegel could headline a major report on possible European bankruptcies, "Reykjavik on the Thames," and far more startlingly, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown could feel called upon to publicly deny that his country was truly in bankruptcy analogy-land.


The first national bankruptcy of the twenty-first century, Iceland is now a laboratory for possible future developments on an increasingly unsettled planet. Rebecca Solnit, who last year traveled with TomDispatch readers all the way from insurgent Chiapas, Mexico to murderous New Orleans, begins her new year at another periphery, the fish-rich but desolate island of Iceland in the distant north Atlantic, which somehow, briefly, made itself into the epicenter of worldwide economic disaster. There, she offers not just horror, but hope -- Solnit's coin of the realm as the author of Hope in the Dark -- for a renewed planet. Tom


The Icelandic Volcano Erupts


Can a Hedge-Fund Island Lose Its Shirt and Gain Its Soul?

Rebecca Solnit


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.


After going hat in hand for bailout funds to Washington, the Bank of England, and the European Central Bank, Iceland turned to Russia and, reluctantly, to the global lender of last resort, the International Monetary Fund, that temple of privatization and globalization. Usually along with money, the IMF imposes its own notions of what makes an economy work -- as it did in Argentina until that country's economy collapsed eight years ago, leading to an extraordinary rebirth of civil society and social upheaval. In Iceland, the process was reversed: first upheaval, then the IMF. Now, you have an insurrectionary public and a new incursion of the forces of neoliberalism that helped topple the country in the first place.


As economic hard times have spread, so have a spate of protests and insurgencies across Europe -- of which Iceland's has only been the most effective so far -- suggesting that a new era of popular power in the streets may be arriving. Iceland's upheaval poses the question of what the collapse of capitalism will bring the rest of us. Last fall, major financial newspapers were already headlining "the end of American capitalism as we knew it,""capitalism in convulsion," "the collapse of finance" and "capitalism at bay." The implication: that something as sweeping as the "collapse of communism" 19 years earlier had taken place.


Since then, the media and others seem to have forgotten that the body in question was declared terminally ill and have focused instead on how to provide very expensive first aid for it. This avoids the question of what the alternatives might be, which this time around are not anything as one-size-fits-all and doctrinaire as old-school socialism, but a host of existing localized, grassroots, and mostly small-scale modes of making goods, providing services, and serving communities -- and remaining accountable.


Sod Houses to Private Jets and Beyond


Iceland is a strange country, as I found out. Situated on the volcanically and seismically active seam between the North American and European tectonic plates, the place seems to belong to both continents, and neither. Usually regarded as part of Scandinavia, it was controlled by Norway, and then Denmark, from the collapse of its proudly independent parliamentary system in the thirteenth century to 1944. That year, while Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, it officially became an independent republic.


But the United States military had arrived three years earlier and would stay on another 62 years, until 2006, at its huge air base in Keflavik. Before the collapse last fall, some of the biggest protests in the republic's history were about the occupying army, which broadcast its own television shows and brought a host of Americanizations and some prosperity to the island. More recently, Iceland became a place of wild neoliberal ambitions and Scandinavian welfare-state underpinnings. Ordinary people worked too many hours, like Americans, and took on too much debt to buy big cars, new condos, and suburban houses.


Poverty was not very far behind just about everyone in Iceland: person after person told me that his or her grandparents or parents had lived in a sod house, built out of the most available material in a country with scarce small trees, and that they themselves or their parents had worked in the fish-processing factories. The country's best-known artist showed me, with a deft flick of his wrist, how his grandmother could fillet a cod "like that," and added that most of the island's fish was processed offshore now. Until recently Reykjavik, the capital, was just a small town, and Iceland a rural society of coastal farms and fishermen.


The boom in this once fairly egalitarian nation created a new class of the super-wealthy whose private jets landed in the airport in downtown Reykjavik and whose yachts, mansions, and other excesses sometimes made the news, as did charges of corruption in business and in the government that countenanced that business. It wasn't corruption, however, that did in the Icelandic economy. It was government-led recklessness and deregulation. I had expected to find that, in such a small country, democracy would work beautifully, that the people would be able to hold their government accountable, and that its workings would be transparent. None of those things were faintly true, as I noted in a cheerless pre-collapse report I wrote for Harper's Magazine on"Iceland's Polite Dystopia."


A lot of people muttered then, in hapless dismay, about what the government was doing -- notably destroying the country's extraordinary wilderness to create hydropower to run the energy-intensive aluminum smelters of transnational corporations. A small group of dedicated people protested, but their sparks never seemed to catch public fire or do much to slow down the destruction. Icelanders generally seemed to tolerate privatizations and giveaways of everything from their medical histories and DNA to their fishing industry and wilderness, and a host of subsidiary indignities that went with this process.


Take, for example, the transnational retail empire of the Baugur Group (as of last week essentially bankrupt and owing Icelandic banks about two billion dollars), run by father and son team Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson and Jóhannes Jónsson. Their Bónus stores, with a distinctive hot-pink piggybank logo, had managed to create a near-monopoly on supermarkets in Iceland. They provided cheap avocados from South Africa and mangos from Brazil, but they'd apparently decided that selling fresh fish was impractical; so, in the fishing capital of the Atlantic, most people outside the center of the capital had no choice but to eat frozen fish.


Icelanders also ate a lot of American-style arguments in favor of deregulation and privatization, or looked the other way while their leaders did. Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, then an opposition Left-Green parliamentarian, now Minister of the Environment in the new government, didn't. She told me last summer, "The nation was not asked if the nation wanted to privatize the banks." They were not asked, but they did not ask enough either.


Fortune magazine blamed one man, David Oddsson, prime minister from 1991 to 2004, for much of this privatization.


"It was Oddsson who engineered Iceland's biggest move since [joining] NATO: its 1994 membership in a free-trade zone called the European Economic Area. Oddsson then put in place a comprehensive economic-transformation program that included tax cuts, large-scale privatization, and a big leap into international finance He deregulated the state-dominated banking sector in the mid-1990s, and in 2001 he changed currency policy to allow the krona to float freely rather than have it fixed against a basket of currencies including the dollar. In 2002 he privatized the banks."


In 2004, he was replaced as Prime Minister, but in 2005 he took over the Central Bank. By the mid-1990s Iceland had, through dicey financing and lots of debt, launched itself on a journey to become one of the world's most affluent societies. Fortune continues:


"But the principal fuel for Iceland's boom was finance and, above all, leverage. The country became a giant hedge fund, and once-restrained Icelandic households amassed debts exceeding 220% of disposable income -- almost twice the proportion of American consumers."


Throwing Eggs at the Bank


The first of the hedge-fund-cum-nation's three main banks, Glitnir, collapsed on September 29, 2008. A week later, the value of the króna fell by nearly a third. Landsbanki and Kaupthing, the other two banking giants, collapsed later that week. Britain snarled when Landsbanki froze the massive Internet savings accounts of British citizens and turned to anti-terrorism laws to seize the Icelandic bank's assets, incidentally reclassifying the island as a terrorist nation and pushing its economy into a faster tailspin.


Not so surprisingly, Icelanders began to get angry -- at Britain, but even more at their own government. The crashing country, however, developed one growth industry: bodyguards for politicians in a country where every pop star and prime minister had once roamed freely in public. An Icelandic friend wrote me, "Eggs were being thrown at the Central Bank. Such emotional protests have not been seen since the early part of the twentieth century, although then people were too poor to throw eggs." Soon eggs were also being heaved at Prime Minister Geir Haarde, whose policies were an extension of Oddsson's.


A dormant civil society erupted into weekly protests that didn't stop even when the government collapsed, since Icelanders were also demanding that the board of governors at the central bank be suspended. One of Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir's first acts was to ask for their resignations. So far they have not cooperated.


Andri Snaer Magnason, whose scathingly funny critique of his country's politics and society, Dreamland: A Self-Help Guide for a Frightened Nation, was a huge bestseller in this bookish country a few years back, told me this week:


"In economics, they talk about the invisible hand that regulates the market. In Iceland, the free market became so wild that it was not fixed by an invisible hand, but an invisible guillotine. So, in one weekend, the whole class of our newly rich masters of the universe lost their heads (reputation, power, and money), and all the power and debt of the newly privatized companies fell into the hands of the people again.


"So we have a very uncertain feeling about the future. At the same time, there is power in all the political debate and lots of political and social energy -- endless [political] parties popping up, Facebook groups, cells and idealists, and possibly a new constitution (not that we have read the old one), and people are speaking up. So, economic fear, political courage, shaking economy, and search for new values -- we need profound change… Now, businesspeople are losing their jobs, and they are scratching their heads and thinking that maybe politics do affect one's life. We need less professional politics and more participation of the people. I hope people will not give up now just because one government fell."


The economic fate of Iceland is uncertain and troubling. One friend there tells me that the already bankrupted banks may go bankrupt again, because their debt is so colossal. The billions in new loans from abroad are terrifying large for a country whose population is a thousandth the size of ours, and the Icelandic currency, the króna, is probably doomed.


The obvious solution is for Iceland to join the European Union (EU), and the April elections include a referendum on that question. Doing so, however, would involve letting the EU manage the country's fishing waters, its traditional and genuine source of wealth. That, in turn, would presumably open those waters up to all European fishermen and to a bureaucracy whose interests and ability to manage Icelandic fisheries is dubious. Iceland fought the Cod Wars with England in the 1970s to protect just those waters from outside fishing, and even in the years when everyone seemed focused on technology and finance, fish still accounted for about 40% of the country's exports.


Argentina and Iceland


A recent headline in the British Guardian read: "Governments across Europe tremble as angry people take to the streets." From the perspective of those governments, a fully engaged citizenry is a terrifying prospect. From my perspective, it's what disasters often bring on, and it's civil society at its best. I'm hoping Iceland's going the way of Argentina.


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.

Copyright 2009 Rebecca Solnit


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